Saturday, October 2, 2010

Room For Change: Independent or Dependent Retirement Communities?




My world was opened wider this week as I had the priviledge of speaking to    several gatherings of seniors within their community space in their retirement facility.  A few inquiring residents also lead me, after the session, to see their efficiency rooms and offer some consult or advise. It was an honor to be invited.
Design for me is letting the personal touch speak and leaving space open for future objects, ideas and activities to casually find their way into that existing space.
Three of the communities gleamed or highlighted at least one design element of importance to me. Not all of them felt like “ home” to me. We,as a society, are evolving in our concept of home and I hope the residences of our seniors are on the top of the list!
     One community I visited had a very open eating area, mail center and activity center.  Anyone walking into the facility was enveloped in some kind of activity center. Coffee and tea was laid out with colorful flowers surrounding it and antiques of different genres donned the walls and display shelving.   A fireplace created a reading nook within the eating space. The same space was used 3 times per day for resident meals. Physically it felt that forward movement was being made.  Staff was seen in the periphery, in their offices, almost like a second thought with no formal area of reception for residents or guests.
 The second community’s walls were hung with framed  prints of the 1970’s era with washed out blue and pink ghost- like images.  The old wicker furniture with thin calico fabric seating welcomed you into the residence facility which also had sterile hard surfaces of brass, glass and a “retro” Florida feel. Although the facility was overused, outdated and worn out in its appearance , the residents seated in the entry were engaging with one another and guests as they entered. A mid morning snack was being served up  by the manager and other residents were busy searching on a property , participating in scavenger hunt. In the adjacent room several women were playing dominos and others reading the paper.  The activity director was moving about and  volleying the questions about the hunt and the prizes.   As I say in my book, “ All motion is good motion” and this is what was felt.  The community spirit was moving and provided opportunities for additional personal movement and choices.  The once drab environment I had placed myself into was now alive with the energy and interaction of others.  I felt a part of their shared circle.
    A third community carried me in with anticipation of at a personal valet arriving any minute to carry my suitcase onward and then off to prepare me a table for tea. Washed with light  from the roof to floors below and the furnishings were well proportioned to the space and new.  The colors were vivid. Ambient lighting and textural elements lent a very soothing and fresh feeling. The atrium was being actively used for exercise class and yoga followed in another space within a half hour. The residents seemed more reserved with less personal interaction, but they were spread out in a larger facility compared to the second one that I visited. Most of the activities were taking place in gathering rooms located on the second level.  Residents’ rooms required that they take a short walk under a covered outside promenade to reach their them, allowing a short connection with the outdoors as they went to meals or activities.
Comparing the three, where would I l choose to live?  Where would I like to see members of my family engaged and needs tended to?
Number One: Was open and created space for activity
Number Two: Was very dated and worn from daily use  but was lively as the residents were lively and interactive
Number Three: Was open, light and new. Color and nature abounded.
The elements I would consider besides the ones I listed above are the following :
Staff awareness of guests and residents. Highly interactive communication skills.
Floor plan that allows for multiple purpose space use, with areas that can be changed out easily for purpose and activity.
Nesting areas within community space for individuals to seek a private space outside their own room.  This can encompass outside seating or viewing areas.
Light, both natural and artificial and  textural interest and color
Clean setting
 Furnishings that are comfortable and easily cleaned
Nature, including trees, flowers, gardens and water feature... patio or outside space for everyone.
 Allowance of personalization in private rooms. Color choice for rooms especially walls. Many facilities will not permit the residents to paint.  Why not have facility staff be required to do it as an additional fee? Paint is the easiest to redo and least expensive. ( Think of the cost these residents pay each month for their units to the cost of paint and labor with move in and move out.)
Other suggestions I could envision:
Built in shelving units or recessed. There would be no need to have shelving into the rooms and chance of bookcases or shelving toppling over..  It would provide for more floor space for mobility.   Adjustable shelving for TV unit could be included in such a unit as well as recessed desk area for computer or other needs.
Option on some eating arrangements. Possibly breakfast basket delivered to room 2 days per week. Somewhat like a B and B, so that residents did not have to get dressed every morning to go down to eat. ( The rules of do’s and don’ts can become rattling for some with  the sense of losing most independent choices.)
So if I could NOT change anything ( and you know I would not be able to stop myself from moving things around or cleaning it up!!! ) I would place myself within the second community , where people interacted and were individually recognized,where staff was part of the daily flow and not behind the scenes and unseen.
Next I would form a committee from the resident pool to assist in updating their community.  They could donate furniture or artwork.  They could help clean. They could participate in tending to a community garden.  When I asked the first community of residents, what was the hardest part of moving into a independent retirement community, one woman stated that is was being bored.She continued by saying that everything is done for them so there is nothing to do on a daily basis.   Why not have help setting tables? or creating some fresh flower arrangements?  If I see any more dusty silk plants and flowers in these facilities I will do something drastic! Why not have a thrift store of household items that the residents donate and service with funding going to facility improvements, guest speakers or other activities.
Yes, there are ways to make our seasoned change to retirement communities easier and more fulfilling.  Think about how you would like to live when you become a part of this population.
When you visit such a community offer suggestions in writing or ask if they have considered options that you would find helpful for yourself or others.
With the senior population on the rise, now is time to offer some change in perspective within these communities.  Step inside and see what you would like to create your senior home , a haven.
Help your friends and family address these often neglected and hidden thoughts about senior adult living.  There is room for change in all things and senior housing is a great place to make an impact.   
Which community described would you choose if the choice awaited you?

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