COVID-19 has shifted the trajectory of senior living design. During the height of the pandemic, the virus hit immunocompromised populations and seniors the hardest. Senior housing communities had to play a vital role in the spectrum of care—not only making sure that its residents were housed, but ensuring that they were medically accommodated as well.  This renewed focus on resident well-being is driving the need for healthier buildings and communities. Gathering feedback from clients on how their facilities and day-to-day experiences have changed during this time, MBH foresees four areas within senior living design that are poised to change in response to this shift.

  1. Evolving amenities

 Before the pandemic, senior living facilities focused on creating positive resident experiences, employing hospitality-based design and amenities to appeal to the incoming baby boomer generation. Amid and post-pandemic, amenities and methods of social engagement such as large indoor gathering spaces and group activities are expected to change. There’s also been an uptick in demand for workforce-oriented amenities. As technology becomes more prevalent in senior living communities to accommodate smartphone-enabled services like telehealth and staffing needs, the need for more robust Wi-Fi and technology connections will be crucial. Some communities are even considering technology bars equipped with mobile and desktop devices located in well ventilated areas with sufficient separation for residents to properly distance.

  1. Changes to residential units

When the pandemic started, seniors had no other option than to shelter-in-place within their individual residential units. This brought about the need for larger units in assisted living facilities and senior housing complexes—spaces that promote more flexibility to allow residents to spend more time inside their rooms while also remaining productive. As residents use their units for more activities and pastimes, aside from resting, the need for flexible furniture is growing. For example, designers can incorporate kitchen tables that provide a dayside workstation for hobbies or crafts and then easily convert into a dining room table at night for meals.

  1. Outdoor spaces

While social distancing measures were in place, the safest way to socialize with friends and family was in outdoor spaces. Consequently, this sparked a newfound appreciation for outdoor connections in senior living communities. As such, we’re seeing an influx of new options such as community gardens, sculpture plazas, walking paths, and decks, which offer residents outdoor connections, promote camaraderie, and encourage wellness. We also expect amenities such as rooftop lounges and outdoor terraces to become commonplace.

For example, Celestina Garden Apartments, part of a multigenerational housing development for low-income families and seniors in Sonoma, Calif., includes a 9,000-square-foot community vegetable garden with an entry trellis that leads residents into a spacious courtyard filled with abundant landscaping and various seating options, including benches, tables, and chairs. The shared garden bonds residents and provides a familiar sense of home, while an enclosed, two-story common area adjacent to the courtyards features a communal kitchen and an open floor plan where residents can relax and mingle. After opening in early 2020, the community had to adjust to social distancing protocols implemented during the pandemic to protect its residents. Its outdoor common spaces and community garden were a reprieve for seniors struggling with isolation and uncertainty, while cultivating the garden provided socialization, purpose, and fresh produce to residents.

  1. Infection control

COVID-19 has exposed a need for updated HVAC and air filtration systems. Many developers are focusing on upgrades, especially in communal spaces across care levels, and we’re seeing more requests for purifying technology such as ultraviolet-C (UVC) lighting, which uses radiation to inactivate particular viruses, and air-cleaning filtration systems that assist with eliminating pathogens in the air. Demand for cleanable fabrics and surfaces to help prevent the spread of pathogens within communities is also in on the rise, including easy-to-clean finishes and materials such as smooth stone, stainless steel, and fiberglass reinforced panels.

Looking ahead

As we move into 2022, it’s important for the design community to consider lessons learned from the pandemic to continue improving existing and future projects. Whether it’s new amenities, larger residential units, abundant outdoor spaces, or design features that support increased infection control, seniors deserve a safe, enriching environment that gives them the services and opportunity to enjoy an engaging, entertaining life.


Tom Pflueger is senior associate, director at the housing studio at MBH Architects (Alameda, Calif.). Tammy Ng is senior associate, project manager at MBH Architects (Alameda).