Can a physical environment subtly encourage seniors to mingle? Absolutely, but it's hardly as simple as saying, "if you build it they will come," asserts Margaret Calkins, founder of IDEAS, Inc., Kirtland, Ohio, who explores the interactions of architecture and psychology.

Most people like to be where the action is, yet prefer an excuse or reason to interact socially. "Putting social places near things that people have to do, like check their mail boxes, provides a natural opportunity to peek into a living room or lounge, see who's there and what's going on, and decide whether to go in," says Calkins. "It spares the decision of heading for a definite social location."

Above: in keeping with the elegant formality of Charleston, S.C., Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community followed a traditional "manor house" approach. A corridor (left), which is visually part of the formal dining room, is used for special occasions, such as this Cinco de Mayo event, and weekly buffet dinners. The corridor connects the main foyer, the dining room and the cafe (see the awning in the background). Just around the corner is the Village Shop (right), a natural gathering place with a "Main Street" feel.

by Carol Milano

Maria Dwight, president of Gerontological Services, a Santa Monica Calif., consulting firm, also stresses what she calls casual observation opportunities. "With glass doors," Dwight says, "you can see what people are doing without entering a room." Traditional designs had many scattered public spaces, affording no sense of community; Dwight likes clustering activities for vitality. "With several services in one central area, more interactions occur. Food is a great way to get people together; they hear murmurs or clinking glasses. Put a coffee bar near the mailboxes so people can sit and socialize," she suggests.

Changes in the Marketplace:
Active is In, Passive Out

What do today's seniors want? They've become less interested in health care, Dwight finds, and choose retirement communities to maintain an active lifestyle, including college-level classes, workout facilities, pools and tracks. "People want intellectual growth, cultural activities and social stimulation," she says. "Include TV and radio stations, so residents can take courses, mentor, teach kids or host a radio show -- meaningful activities bring people together."

Lately, religious gathering spaces have become less prominent. "Be sure your chapel has multiple uses: theatre, music, meditation," Dwight advises. Another change is electronic: At one Orange County retirement community, 68 percent of arriving residents brought their own computers. "People don't like sitting in computer rooms, unless it's for activities they're used to doing with others, like taking a class or listening to music," she finds. Instead, she suggests, add computer classrooms or centers.

Calkins cautions against "passive spaces," such as windows facing a children's playground. "One theory is that seniors like to watch kids from a distance. Many older people have visual problems, so this can be difficult. More significantly, it doesn't stimulate interaction because the activity is so far removed. A small cafe in the lobby or town square area, with an open window where residents can watch staff prepare meals, while chatting back and forth, is a more immediate, direct, and appealing space that-will support interaction." Dwight encourages using libraries as resource centers, not dead, quiet rooms. "Include CDs, audio books, videos, large print books," she says. "You can socialize in a library; make it more like a Borders or Barnes & Noble."

Sound and light definitely affect interaction. "Hard surfaces and square or rectangular rooms make it harder for people to hear communication. They may get frustrated and stop going to that space," Calkins says. "With softer acoustics, people lower their voices and can converse. Pay attention to the light levels, depending on what you're asking people to do." For example, card tables require at least 50 foot-candles of light (the light emitted one foot away from a candle).

Finally, both consultants stress that design follows function. "The function is the programs. What's important to you? What's the philosophy of your community, its activities department or residential services?" Dwight asks. "You have to know what you want to do before you start designing it."

Design Enhances Learning,
Activity and Familiar Lifestyles

Architects specializing in elder design think hard about what pleases these residents. To architect Dave Hoglund of Perkins Eastman in Pittsburgh, "The generation that raised families after World War II has a different view of retirement, as a long, full life still ahead. Instead of bingo or arts and crafts, thev want a Kinko's nearby; they're writing books, and need Internet access or copies for their volunteer groups -- and an art studio for real projects."

St. Ann's Community, Rochester, N.Y., made its lobby a bright, warm and inviting space, complete with a "greenhouse feel," an aquarium and water garden, and a fireplace that has become a prime meeting place for residents.

Bookstores are our new town squares, where you can get a newspaper and coffee. "People interact around food, shared experiences and wanting to learn from others," Hoglund finds. The next generation "wants food gratification in three minutes. Instead of a big formal dining room or waiter service, people need take-out food they can bring to their apartment; they've got theater tickets," he observes. At Collington Episcopal Life Care in Mitchellville, Md., Hoglund and his team reconfigured the entire dining program. "In the center of the dining room is an open kitchen, with chefs cooking in front of you. It's very entertaining to watch."

This is an active population still looking for opportunities. "Lifelong learning is coming. Some of us will want second, or third, careers after 65," Hoglund believes. For Collington, he designed five classrooms in a common area, next to the wellness center, so the education program can include nutrition and health. Some classrooms are lecture-style; others, with stacked chairs, are also used for music or staff training.

For other retirement centers, Hoglund has planned classrooms with distance-learning capabilities. "The college professor may not be coming to campus, but the students are. More colleges and retirement community sponsors are collaborating. LaSalle University in Boston has even created senior apartments on campus."

A decade ago, for Woodside Place. (Oakmont, Pa)., an award-winning dementia facility, Perkins Eastman incorporated several interior spaces, all opening into each other. "People pass through an open, all-glass arts and crafts room and see something they might like to do," Hoglund says. "That visual contact is a spur." Another innovation was layering spaces from the most private to the most public, with semiprivate and semipublic zones in between. Each resident has a bedroom, in "houses" joined by a long common area. Glassed-in "porches" inside the building are such good simulations, people sit on them, interacting. "Think of a traditional neighborhood and the importance of a front porch. We learned some of that bonding was key to how people came together," Hoglund says.

Citing the trend towards aging in place, Glen Tipton, of CSD Architects in Baltimore, works to keep seniors independent as long as possible. "You want people in a vibrant enough space, with things to do and look at.
One way to encourage interaction is variety. Another is by capturing architectural themes so interiors are reminiscent of how people are used to living, not forcing them into different or uncomfortable ways," says Tipton. "We try to capture a familiar lifestyle, and make it user-friendly for seniors."

Regional differences affect how people interact. For Bishop Gadsden Retirement Community in Charleston, S.C., a rather formal city, Tipton evoked the traditional "manor house." "You walk from the great hall to the formal dining room through an enclosed porch, feeling you're outside, because of all the light," he says. "The dining room opens entirely into a passageway, erasing the definition of where the room ends. Wrought iron gates define and occasionally secure the room, but allow light to flood it. You can see through the gates, or open them to make the corridor part of the dining room." A Sunday brunch serving station is placed in the corridor.

The way you enter a facility helps predict the level of activity within it. "Some buildings can be planned with the entrance itself a natural spot for spontaneous activity," Tipton notes. "Or the entrance can be an intimate, controlled space with another activity magnet elsewhere: a great view, a lake, a vista. Some communities don't want you to feel you walked into Grand Central Station."

St. Ann's Community, Rochester, N.Y., had a huge, traditional institutional lobby space. To encourage residents to use the lobby, Tipton's team put in a fireplace and seating area, a large aquarium, a water garden, planters, a winter garden with hanging baskets to compensate for Rochester's short summers and, nearby, a casual cafe as a destination to encourage interaction.

For the nursing center at St. James, Baton Rouge, La., the ground floor became a community outreach facility. On the social model nursing floors, eight residents share a kitchen, living room and dining room. "They emerge from their own rooms into a communal space, not a corridor," says Tipton. "Nurses are nearby to interact with residents and give care. The modern nursing home strives to get away from the hospital model."

At Woodside Place, a dementia facility in Oakmont, Pa., interior spaces open into each other and there are very few "solid walls" that would prevent people from seeing others. The glassed-in "porches" (left) have become natural places for interaction. Even when in the craft room (right), residents can see what's going on outside.

Where Theory Meets Reality

Are the new concepts spurring interaction? Bill Trawick, executive director at Bishop Gadsden, is pleased that by locating the fitness center/spa where the independent and assisted living residences converge, everyone feels ownership in the wellness program. "Running into each other reduces the fear of the apartment and cottage people about moving to assisted living if they need to, because they've gotten to know that population," he adds.

Dining services are a huge success, with a cafe and evening-only formal room. "Not only is it an important source of resident interaction, but a tremendous reason for our residents' satisfaction," Trawick reports. The "village store," on "Main Street" near the cafe, crafts area, and business center, is run by residents. "People who never would have known each other volunteer together and form relationships."

Trawick sees the value of carefully studying Charleston architecture in terms of housing design, courtyards, and interiors that reflect both its historic nature and its West Indies influence. "We put lots of emphasis on landscaping and gardens, which are very important here," he says. "We've had an extremely good experience; our community really fits our market niche, and has been very well received. "

Brewster Village, Appleton, Wis., clusters residents in nine "households" divided between three "neighborhood" wings. The town center (left) brings everyone together in an atrium area complete with beauty parlor, library and woodshop. At right: Each household has its own kitchen, with meals served family style, and its own family room immediately adjacent to the kitchen/dining area.

Brewster Village, Appleton, Wis., is a skilled nursing facility in which resident rooms are grouped into "households." Each household includes a living room, dining room, kitchen, porch, back yard and laundry room.

Brewster used feedback from residents, their families and staff, as well as input from the Institute on Aging & The Environment at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, to create its design.

"That's why we got the results we wanted, which are pretty spectacular," says David Rothmann, executive director. Residents now have access throughout the facility, which Horty Elving & Associates of Minneapolis
tried to differentiate from the traditional, double-loaded corridor model. Residents and visitors all enjoy "people-watching" from the seating areas in the town center, where they can see the library, workshops, salon/barber shop, cafe, chapel, etc.

One innovation was placing sheltered workshops right in the town center. "We'd thought our SRO [singleroom occupancy] residents would isolate themselves, but we find the opposite. We're pleasantly surprised, and wish we had made our workshops larger," admits Rothmann, noting that the popular Fitness Center could also be bigger.

St. Ann's Community tried to think ahead, "not just for what we need now, but for what seniors will want 10 years from now," says Eileen Ryan, vice president, marketing. Their 18 month renovation, completed in June, 2002, "brought more of the outdoors in. In the center of the lobby, a platform has an aquarium and water garden, flowing from one level to another." Off the lobby, a new cafe and gift shop have proven very
popular. Glass abounds in Tipton's design, giving the cafe a greenhouse feel.

Ryan calls the lobby "a grand, welcoming, warm, wonderful space, which encourages people to sit down, relax and socialize. The gas fireplace is a huge hit. Our weather's not always great, so cozy, warm heat is certainly a draw for people. A lot of residents meet their families down by the fireplace. In the colder months, it's hard to find a spot near the fireplace; it's where everyone loves to go!"

The fireplace area flows into a sun room, allowing many conversation areas with groups of chairs, tables and a sofa. "The point of the design was to allow many people to be in the lobby at the same time. High ceilings and beautiful windows allow in so much light," notes Ryan.

Hoglund's design for Collington features an arbor, for people who need memory support. "The common area is broken down into spaces, with country kitchen dining areas and a great room," says Judy Reilly, residential services director. "It gives people a lot of space to move around and get them into more natural, small groups. It's a nice effect, not only facilitating social interaction but doing it in a homelike atmosphere. That unit has a wonderful feel. It's a great model, architecturally, for residents with some dementia. The homey feeling lessens tension and agitation."

Collington, which hosts a satellite campus of Prince George's Community College, works closely with college officials, one of whom serves on its board. "Education is a major draw. Among the most popular courses are philosophy, autobiographical writing, tai chi, yoga, politics of regime change, current issues and poetry," says Reilly. Residents conduct their own music appreciation class. Courses are taught in a large building, connected to the apartment building. On one floor are a fitness center, the physical therapy department, pool (with classes taught three times a week by the college), weight training, aerobic equipment, a music room, bank, beauty shop and country store. In a nearby meeting room, philosophy, yoga and creative arts classes are held.

At the courtyard level, a small living room has puzzles, a bar and happy hour. "People gather there spontaneously, all day," Reilly finds. "Because all the wings are interconnected, traffic flows in and out. You can reach all of them without going outside. The lobby-like area is another place where people gather, waiting for the shuttle to cottages, the Metro station, local malls or trips."

Time for Tweaking

Not all innovations work seamlessly. "Our private dining room was not private enough," Trawick recalls. When residents were having a private party, they could be seen through the glass doors. The doors were reoriented, and plantation-style louvers have been installed. Trawick now believes the mailroom could have been in a less public place. It was intentionally placed in the commons building so people would have to come to get their mail, and see each other. "Also, the staff can keep an eye on them, subtly." Now that he's observed the new design in operation, Trawick would have made a wall to walk around, leaving space for a big residents' bulletin board in the mail area.

At Brewster Village, a four-season sun room at the end of each "household" leads to a private outdoor backyard. These attractive spaces are underused, probably because the new center opened in the fall, when weather was already chilly. "Our staff will have to make a conscious effort to work with residents on that," Rothmann expects.

Benefits Beyond Expectations

While residents are your primary concern, stimulating social interaction can appeal to many other members of your community. "We've seen the number of participants in our resident council double. They take a more active role in voicing their likes and dislikes." says Rothmann. In addition the number of daily visitors to Brewster Villaze has risen.

Bishop Gadsden's fitness center is open to employees. "It's an opportunity for residents and staff to mix together, develop a level of trust and affection. It's a great source of employee morale, and it happened spontaneously," says Trawick.

"From a disability point of view, Collington's physical plant is now very user-friendly," observes Reilly. "When I walk in now, I still think, 'this is so wonderful.' You always see people mingling, enjoying themselves. It's exactly what you want as part of a community."

Carol Milano is a New York City-based journalist specializing in health care.

Design Resources from AAHSA

The American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging continues to work with architects, designers and providers to bring innovations in design to aging services. In conjunction with the Design for Aging Center of The American Institute of Architects (AIA), AAHSA, through its Quality First initiative, is involved with the Design for Aging: 2004 Review. The Review includes a juried exhibition, a book, and education programs, including exhibit panels on display, at the AAHSA Annual Meetings in both Denver (2003) and Nashville (2004). Learn more at the AlA's Web site,

The Design for Aging 2000 Review is available from the AAHSA Bookstore at a member price of $54, $65 for nonmembers. Other design-related publications include Design for Aisistec -a - Guidelines for Housing the Physically and Mentally Frail (item # DINOO& -.-,4c-tve Adult Retirement Communities (item DNO07), and more- visit and follow the "Bookstore" link.

Bishop Gadsdenn Retirement Community, Charleston, S.C.
Cheryl Van Landingham, director of marketing, or (843) 762-3300.

Brewster Village, Appleton, Wis.
David Rothmann, executive director, (920) 832-5400.

Collington Episcopal Life Care, Mitchellville, Md.
Judy Reilly, residential services director, (301) 925-9610.

St. Ann's Community, Rochester, N.Y
Eileen Ryan, vice president, marketing, (585) 697-6410.

AAHSA Resources Visit and click on the "Bookstore" link for access to design-related resources from AAHSA.

Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.