How Senior Living Is Buoyant Enough to Survive COVID

Architects and providers can work to identify solutions for safe and healthy senior living changes


To say that senior housing has bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic may be a bit optimistic, but the industry definitely has displayed tremendous buoyancy. Working together, providers, architects, engineers, technology vendors and others have identified ways to keep residents safe, comfortable and engaged—both short term and into the future.

There is no doubt that the pandemic will have an impact on construction, design and renovations that will last long after the pandemic. This will be influenced by several factors and marked by numerous innovations.

According to a study in the Journal of Aging & Social Policy, there are a few key pandemic-related issues that may impact the senior living industry.

For instance, retirement savings accounts have taken a hit in recent months, though what impact this will have is still uncertain. Older adults may decide to delay retirement, and some of those who have retired may consider re-entering the workforce and ponder putting off a move to a senior living community or making any new investments.

The pandemic and subsequent quarantines/ lockdowns also have prevented many people from getting medical attention for preexisting physical, emotional and social problems/issues. At the same time, access to food, groceries and supplies has been challenging for people who can’t access these necessities safely or have them delivered.

Lastly, social isolation and loneliness are linked to negative physical and mental health outcomes (such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder).

Of course, with challenges come opportunities—including increased use of technology, stronger family and intergenerational connections, innovative ways to combat social isolation and a growing interest in wellness and holistic care.

Embracing innovations will be key, as a beautiful building or apartment isn’t enough to attract residents. They will define “home” by a new cadre of parameters. With that in mind, we are already seeing a shift toward design that focuses on safety, wellness, and engagement in new and innovative ways.

Among the design innovations, owners, operators and builders will be prioritizing and residents will be seeking the following.

  • Emphasis on touch-free features. From keyless entries to hands-free faucets, hand sanitizers and entrances, reducing the risk for contaminating surfaces will be essential. Also watch for innovations such as voice-activated elevators and auto-cleaning UV systems.
  • Increasing air filtration from ASHRAE code-minimum MERV- 8 to MERV-9 or MERV- 13 is a proven, popular and easy fix, and works even better when coupled with Needle Point Bipolar Ionization, which kills viruses and agglomerates airborne virus-carrying particles to make MERV-9/13 filters more effective. Elements such as bipolar ionization, increased filtration and HVAC UV light can be retrofitted to an existing system or included in a new one.
  • High-tech takeovers. Technology is no longer a luxury for seniors. They will expect wide bandwidth, 5G and the ability to easily get and stay online, stream movies and TV shows, videochat, and more. Watch for communities with dedicated rooms for telehealth visits, featuring exam tables, cutting-edge audio and video capabilities and other features.
  • Small things that can make a big impact. For instance, think about new ways to safely deliver mail and reduce mailroom traffic. This may involve adding exterior access to the mailroom and/or creating kiosks or vestibules. Some communities are moving to a concierge service for mail and shipping services.
  • Rethinking public seating. Instead of benches or chairs along halls and walkways, having sitting or waiting “nooks” scattered throughout public areas is an evolving trend.
  • Design to maximize outdoor access. During the pandemic, features such as patios, balconies and porches have been lifesavers for isolated seniors. Moving forward, these features, as well as gardens, wide paths and open courtyards will be appealing to residents. Bright apartments with windows that allow for views, bring in light and enable residents to feel connected with the world around them will also be in greater demand.
  • Dedicated visitation rooms. Increasingly, watch for rooms or apartments specifically for residents to visit with friends and family. These will have features such as separate entrances for residents and their visitors, glass or plexiglass panels/partitions and dedicated HVAC/ air filtration systems. Existing apartments and other spaces—such as storage rooms—can be converted into visitation rooms, but they all will need to feel like home. This means residential paint colors, upholstered seating, plants, artwork and other touches that make these visits comfortable and intimate, as well as safe.

The COVID pandemic has changed everything, but innovations that focus on the triumvirate of safety, wellness, and engagement will help the senior living industry thrive regardless of what the future brings.

Greg Hunteman AIA, president of Pi Architects.