If furnishings were purely about functionality to a nursing home owner-operator shopping for chairs, four legs and a seat would be the sole criteria. But there’s far more thinking that goes into designing and building furnishings today — both subtle and obvious. Our experts offer advice on how to comprehend and capitalize on the psychology of furnishing design.

(1) Understand the positive psychology behind
furnishing design.

“Furnishings play a very important role in creating positive psychological effects, especially in senior living,” says Jeanna Swiatkowski, interior design team lead for Direct Supply Aptura.

Some might find it odd that a dining room chair could be designed to ease digestion, while a lounge chair would be designed to imbue a sense of openness and congeniality.

The placement of furnishings can be just as intentional by design.

For example, a cluster of chairs and couches along a wall can unwittingly feed some residents’ fears of isolation. 

The quantity of furnishings in a confined space also can agitate some residents. Closely grouped furnishings can actually create tension. 

“If the furniture is too close, people might feel uncomfortable. Humans find odd numbers more pleasing than even, so try combining your sofas, chairs and end tables in groupings of three, five or seven,” she adds. 

Furnishings can also be used to facilitate traffic and prevent falls, as explained by Jane Rohde, principal, JSR Associates, an architecture and interior design firm specializing in senior living.

For example, if a fall-prone resident gets up frequently at night, placing chairs strategically for “pause points” along the way can be a useful tool, she says.

(2Colors, textures and shapes can evoke desired feelings.

Furnishing elements clearly bring on specific moods in resident populations. Swiatkowski suggests soft, muted hues of blue, green and gray in areas of a facility where overall calm is desired. And try intense reds, oranges and yellows in dining room furnishings to encourage appetites.

Fabric textures also can evoke emotions in many seniors. For example, soft chenilles, cashmeres and flannels can make people feel cozy and comfortable.

The shapes of furnishing also can evoke specific feelings. Consider “wraparound” chairbacks, which can achieve the same effect as “hugging,” weighted vests and blankets that have been shown to calm an agitated person, says Rohde. And while some facilities believe high-back chairs can make residents feel secure, they can evoke claustrophobic feelings in cramped areas.

The dimensions of chairs, in particular, can either inhibit or enable a senior to be more independent, and is a key element to which any buyer should pay close attention, she adds. Specifically, those dimensions should be: arms between 24 and 26 inches high, 20-inch seat depths, and 17½- to 19-inch seat heights.

At the end of the day, Rohde advises buyers not to consider sensory elements in a vacuum.

“It has to be in context,” she says. For example, carefully choose chairs whose colors and patterns provide adequate contrast to the floor below — an important safety consideration with visually-impaired seniors.

(3) Construction materials matter.

Recent innovations in special coatings and finishes give metal furnishings the warmth of wood while maintaining steely durability — a positive given how natural materials often can draw links to home.

“Meticulous care is put into each design created for healthcare to encompass a comfortable, positive experience,” observes Shelly Masbruch, marketing assistant, home styles and contract for Flexsteel Industries. “Sharp edges, and cold, dramatic details are avoided to ensure each resident feels safe, comfortable and at home.”

Swiatkowski advises warm cherry finishes instead of dark finishes, if only for the lack of contrast against similarly dark floors and fabrics.

(4Attend to special details in memory care.

Buyers should work with designers to ensure the right colors, patterns and furniture placement avoid disturbing residents.

Jamie Thorn, director of new business development for Forbo Flooring NA, says he has discovered common elements when conferring with designers specializing in memory care. 

“Home-like environments work best. Designs are typically calm and monochromatic,” he says. “Designs that do not have a stop and start can work, while bold or busy colors and designs tend to confuse.”

Rohde says a 2004 study showed that the use of color can offer memory care residents a kind of visual cue about spaces to avoid. 

“For example, if you have a staff space that is for medication preparation, providing a darker color in an alcove will ‘cue out’ a resident,” she says. Painting utility doors the same color as adjoining walls is another example.


Mistakes to avoid

—Allowing personal preference to drive decisions around color. Expert designers understand the power of soft blue hues in quiet areas, and bright reds and oranges that stimulate appetites in dining areas. 

—Grouping furnishings in haphazard ways. An intimate group of two chairs facing a couch is highly preferable to three in a row.

—Choosing wild patterns or non-contrasting colors in floors, walls and seating in memory care areas. Those with dementia struggle deeply with visual cues.