While there’s value in senior living communities offering planned programming for residents, some seniors may feel most at home when they’re able to make organic connections based on their own interests, according to one industry professional

To explore this topic, Jane Sloss, project manager at Worn Jerabek Wiltse Architects, interviewed 19 residents of several affordable senior living communities about their homes and shared the findings at the 2021 Environments for Aging Expo & Conference, August 28-31, in the session “This is Home: Making Home in Affordable Senior Living Communities.”

“The premise of the study was to explore the idea of home—not necessarily the physical idea of home, but more the ethereal idea of home, what feels like home,” Sloss said.

Through her interviews, she said she discovered what residents love about their homes, what they were less than thrilled about, and what did and didn’t feel like home. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity and value in helping people to think intentionally about their homes and how the places we live can feel more like home,” she said. “In order to unlock that opportunity, we must meet residents where they feel most comfortable.”

In some cases, residents shared examples of their communities succeeding in supporting their interests and fostering home. For example, Sloss explained how Heritage Woods of Minooka in Minooka, Ill., enabled a resident who was a lifelong gardener, to continue her hobby. “Dreama told me that working in the dirt makes her feel at home,” Sloss explained. “She uses a mobility device, so an accessible raised planter allowed her to maintain her green thumb. She was able to not only plant and grow zucchini, but also bake zucchini bread, from her harvest, and share it with other residents.”

Another interviewee, David, a resident of Heritage Woods of Gurnee in Gurnee, Ill., told Sloss that music was a big part of his life. “David’s friend Richard brings his CD player to the community living room on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays and plays music. A group of residents gather and sing along with the music that he plays. David describes the gathering as having a ‘real good family atmosphere,’ which makes him feel at home,” she said.

Ron, who had lived in the basement of a house before moving to Heritage Woods of Gurnee about a year ago, told Sloss that he doesn’t spend very much time in his apartment. “Ron mentioned the generous entry lobby of the building as a place that he likes to spend time,” she said. “The lobby serves as gathering place and community living room for residents. It’s a place where residents can see who’s coming and going and meet and greet one another.”

One challenge that many residents shared was being able to foster a sense of home through cooking and sharing food, especially because many affordable communities serve meals in a communal dining room because resident rooms include only a kitchenette. “Many residents said they missed being able to cook their own meals,” Sloss said.

The speaker encouraged attendees to expand the way they think about residents’ cooking and sharing food. “Is there an opportunity to modify the design of kitchenettes within the units or to expand the opportunities for residents to cook outside of their apartments?,” she asked. “Given the desire to cook and share food, perhaps communities could include shared family kitchens into the design of affordable communities.”