For some time now, senior living communities have been shifting away from traditional institutional models toward hospitality-focused, community-centric spaces that prioritize resident health and well-being.

This evolution reflects a deeper understanding of the importance of social interaction and a sense of belonging in a way that’s reshaping the industry and altering the landscape of elder care.

Modern senior living design is increasingly focused on creating experiences and fostering environments that encourage socialization and provide a variety of choices.

In response, there’s been increased demand for the incorporation of vibrant social spaces such as bars and lounges to help communities meet the needs and desires of new and existing residents.

Prioritizing social locations

The way bars and lounges are conceptualized and integrated is changing. In this new era, the mantra of “location, location, location” has never been more relevant. There’s a pronounced shift in the placement and design of social spaces, moving them from peripheral, inconspicuous parts of the community to central, easily accessible locations.

Where previous design approaches often retrofitted a bar-like area into an existing lounge, adding modest features like liquor lockers for residents to store their favorite beverages or a mobile bar for special events, the current trend sees the rise of purpose-built, well-functioning bars that command attention as the focal point of common spaces.

No longer hidden behind closed doors or situated “off the beaten path,” these social hubs claim prime spots in the community. The Woodlands at Canterfield in West Dundee, Ill., an assisted living and assisted living memory support designed by RDG, is one example. The community’s TEC Lounge is positioned just off the main lobby and adjacent to two other restaurants. Here, a custom-designed tree sculpture serves as a point of interest and a visual separation between the lobby and lounge.

Accessible design strategies

Accessibility is another important factor in designing today’s social hubs. The height of the bar and countertops is an important consideration, as it significantly influences a resident’s ability to engage comfortably.

Recognizing the diverse physical needs and limitations within assisted living and independent living communities, designers must thoughtfully choose the height of these design features. For example, designing a bar at a standard table height of 30 feet or chair seat height of 18 inches can make the interaction and functionality of serving patrons (reaching to serve food, drinks, etc.) difficult or awkward.

Glenridge on Palmer Ranch in Sarasota, Fla., offers an example of how to solve this challenge. The community was determined to have its bar, The Kiltie, designed at standard height and wanted the bartender and patrons to be at that same level. In response, the design recesses the bar, creating space to store equipment along the back and front bar while enabling the bartender to serve and converse with patrons with natural ease at eye level.

Whether it’s a standard seat height, as is the case at The Kiltie, or counter- or bar-height models, designers should work with clients to evaluate each option for its aesthetic appeal and inclusivity to create a welcoming atmosphere where all residents can enjoy meaningful interactions.

Understanding who will be patronizing the venue (ambulatory versus non-ambulatory residents, family members, visitors, etc.) can help guide decisions on furnishings in these spaces.

Discussions with owners can be a helpful way to determine the right solution and mix for a community. When in doubt, it’s key to remember that flexibility in design and providing people with choice go a long way in creating a successful and highly utilized environment.

Themed amenity spaces

The growing popularity of bars and lounges also presents a unique opportunity for creativity and thematic exploration, allowing communities to venture beyond a standard design ethos to create a playful and experiential approach that offers residents, their families, and guests a vibrant departure from the everyday.

Glenridge on Palmer Ranch, for example, opted for an aesthetic that became known as a “Scottish theme with a Florida twist” to pay homage to the area’s rich Scottish history. As a nod to this theme, the design team selected a custom plaid carpet pattern and incorporated a display of tartan flags above the bar to reinforce the theme.

Additionally, design approaches for social spaces should prioritize flexibility and variety to provide residents with a range of choices, not only in seating arrangements but also in the types of social interactions they can engage in.

Fred’s Oasis in the Cypress Glen Retirement Community, in Greenville, N.C., exemplifies this approach by dividing a 3,000-square-foot area into distinct zones, including a bar area that’s ideal for individuals or couples, communal tables for larger groups, and traditional dining setups with two and four-top arrangements.

Clusters of soft seating are strategically placed both in quiet, intimate areas near the fireplace and in livelier sections of the space. This thoughtful arrangement acknowledges each resident’s individuality, recognizes that preferences for social settings can vary daily, and empowers residents to choose how they want to experience and engage with their community.

Likewise, at Glenridge, The Kiltie’s appeal is enhanced by its strategic integration into the community’s newly developed “theater district,” which incorporates an art gallery for showcasing a rotating display of local and resident artwork, an expanded lobby, and gathering space. These additions are positioned adjacent to the existing performing arts center, creating a multifaceted cultural hub. Residents can plan an entire night out within their community—from enjoying artistic performances and movies to winding down with cocktails and appetizers at The Kiltie.

This cohesive design reimagines the concept of community in a way that not only meets the functional needs of residents but significantly enriches their social and cultural experiences. Since opening, the community has noticed an increase in family and guest visits as well as many commenting positively about the community’s inclusive and non-traditional atmosphere.

Fostering sense of belonging, social connections

During greenfield and renovation projects, the focus on the physical needs of seniors can often overshadow the equally important consideration of their emotional and mental well-being. As people age, their physical capabilities might change but their habits, joys, and ways of connecting with others often remain constant.

Well-designed bars and social areas can help nurture social connections, celebrate the spirit of community, and support the holistic well-being of residents. This shift in senior living design provides environments that are rich in opportunities for residents to enjoy a socially vibrant and emotionally rewarding lifestyle.

Kelley Hoffman, NCIDQ, is a senior partner and leads RDG Planning & Design’s senior living interiors market (St. Louis) and can be reached at