There’s a growing body of evidence that our contact with nature improves our physical and mental health and cognitive functioning. As designers, architects, and operators look for more ways to improve senior living communities, many are turning to biophilic design principals to provide contact with nature within assisted living, memory care, and adult day care settings. Speakers from Philadelphia University and Drexel University shared some ideas worth considering during the Environments for Aging Expo & Conference in Las Vegas this week.

Discussing the effects of lighting on seniors, Eugenia Ellis, a professor at Drexel University, said it’s important not only to provide ample lighting sources for seniors but light that includes the full spectrum of colors to tie into the body’s natural circadian rhythms. For example, blue light helps wake us up and keep us energized while amber lighting, which is more common in early morning and evening hours, help prepare the body for rest and relaxing. “It’s important when we design spaces for people with sleep problems that the spaces do not let any blue light slip in,” she said.

Other characteristics of the aging eye, such as sensitivity to glare, loss of contrast sensitivity, and distortion of colors due to the lens yellowing, also need to be considered when making design decisions for senior living communities. For example, architects and designers should ensure steps and flooring transitions use contrasting colors or materials to help seniors more easily see these changes in surfaces, while materials that minimize or eliminate glare, shadows, or reflections should be chosen for flooring and other hard surfaces.

Philadelphia University’s Robert Fryer discussed the importance of biophilic elements in senior environments to stimulate the senses, enhance perception and cognition, improve self-esteem, encourage independence, and promote health and wellbeing.

Fryer shared some cues to consider from his work with Tulip Adult Day Centers, including connections to:

  1. Nature: Fryer broke this down into two categories, including visual connections, such as looking outside a window and being able to see plants or greenery, and non-visual, including being able to hear or smell natural elements, such as including a water feature in a garden where seniors can sit or take a stroll.
  2. Water: Whether onsite ponds or landscape features, the presence of water can help lower stress and improve circadian system functioning.
  3. Natural systems: It’s important for residents to be able to notice changes, whether in the time of day (sunrise and sunset) or the seasons to help regulate daily schedules and overall organizing and understanding of passages of time.
  4. Natural materials: Design elements, such as carpeting or fabrics with a nature-based pattern, are another way to bring biophilic elements to interior spaces.

“Our bodies evolved in nature and we should take cues from it,” Fryer said.