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Living as an Experience

Aug. 28, 2017

What if we took design cues from everyday environments, like hotels, and made them priority for senior-living spaces?

What if we looked at senior living as though it were a part of a wonderful, experiential life? Instead of considering the “dis-ease” and care needs first, we look at what has meaning for an individual. What are the affinity interests that a person has had in their younger years and subsequent later years? When someone is looking for a senior-living setting for their loved one or themselves, what if the marketing and care team asked what is most important to them versus their blood pressure reading? “Lifestyle living” is a term that is being used within multifamily housing and the senior living marketplace—addressing living, wellness, and encouraging individuals to maximize their capabilities versus focusing on a person’s disability or inability—celebrating an individual’s uniqueness.  

creating experience

On a recent trip to Montreal, I stayed in an exceptional boutique hotel, Le Petit Hotel & Café. The detail and design of the site was wonderful. The wayfinding, branding, and signage were consistently iconic: the home icon for the hotel that becomes the coffee pot for the cafe, the soft cotton robe with the same icon, the card key that reinforces the wayfinding for the hotel, and even the paper and pen found in the room followed along consistently, all beautifully orange.

The rooms were well-appointed and thoughtfully designed. I always look at the details: hooks for towels in convenient locations, accessories to hold bathing supplies in the shower, a place for a washcloth inside the shower, outlets in usable locations, operable windows (a true plus), and other details that support a comfortable experience. These are all elements that I often see completely overlooked within the design of resident rooms in assisted living, memory care, nursing homes, and independent-living settings. If the environment can support the experience and provide ease of use, it supports everyday activities of life, and needs to be explored and included within designs for elders.

What made the spaces at the hotel truly experiential? How the staff interacted with the hotel guest. It was the genuine hospitality of the staff that made the stay at Le Petit a wonderful life experience. There is a welcoming feeling and assistance into the lobby, with special coffees and delicious lattes available at any time as part of your stay, all prepared as you discuss your plans for the day. All of the staff, no matter what shift, would share their personal recommendations, favorite restaurants, and must-see sites in Montreal.  

One staff member was excited that we were going to the large outdoor marketplace called Jean Talon Market. As she stated, “to just smell the delicious fruits” that tempt the palette and enjoy meals are part of the experience of living. The artistry of the market is a concept that we could utilize for a setting dedicated to the lives of seniors, regardless of their capabilities. Fostering spaces that interact with the community at large and engage with others on a daily or regular basis are part of “normal” life, and need to be included within overall senior-living designs and the community context. 

Another recommendation was to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. Outside of the museum was an interesting, interactive artwork installation. At first, it seemed to be something that should be viewed without interaction, but to my delight, it continually changed as observers sat within, walked, or stood nearby watching. Some actively followed the colorful curves. The sculpture was beyond a labyrinth as the people made it a living, moving, and changing display of enjoyment. If we used this as a basis for designing inside and outside spaces, artwork can have true meaning that creates dialogue and conversation, interaction of different ages, and exploration that supports movement and balance.

the connection

No matter if we are sharing a meal with dear friends, taking a bite of a perfectly ripened peach, listening to a concert that includes a favorite aria by Bach, meandering on a path outside, or sharing conversation over a coffee, these daily pleasures can continue regardless of an individual’s stage of life. Recently, I visited Inspirations, a rural community for assisted-living residents. They were unpacking a new ATV that they are planning on using for residents with mobility issues to make sure that they can easily visit and participate in the farm area that includes llamas, goats, and chickens. This is person-centered care. Designers have the creative insight to support residents to achieve access and delight in everyday life.  

Jane Rohde is the founding principal of JSR Associates, Inc. located in Ellicott City, Md. She champions a global cultural shift toward deinstitutionalizing senior living and healthcare facilities through person-centered principles, research and advocacy, and design of the built environment. Clientele includes nonprofit and for-profit developers, government agencies, senior living and healthcare providers, and design firms. Rohde speaks internationally on senior living, aging, healthcare, evidence-based design, and sustainability.

Photography courtesy of JSR Associates

About the Author


Jane Rohde, AIA, FIIDA, ASID, ACHA, CHID LEED AP BD+C & GGA – EB: Jane Rohde is the founding principal of JSR Associates Inc. in Catonsville, MD. JSR Associates Inc. celebrates 23 years of consulting services in 2019. Jane is the recipient of the 2015 Environments for Aging Changemaker Award and in 2018 she received the ASID Design for Humanity Award, was recognized as an Honorary Alumni of Clemson University’s Architecture + Health program, and has been honored as one of 10 notable Women in Design. For more information or comments, please contact Jane Rohde at [email protected] or “Chat with Jane” at www.jsrassociates.net.

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