Designing Retirement Communities With Care


With worldwide life expectancy continuingly on the rise, new issues related to an aging population start to appear. When looked at from the perspective of design and planning, some of these problems could be mitigated or even eradicated. While no solution is one hundred percent effective, it is important to tackle the issue from every possible field that is impacted.

Elderly citizens without the means to pay house mortgages; those living without proper health care or support networks; and poor inclusive urbanistic planning; are among the driving factors behind seniors and their families opting for retirement home facilities. Some elders decide to live in retirement homes, where, in theory, all their needs will be covered. In practice, these facilities can often forget the human factor in their design––the user’s habitability gets relegated to a second plane and the design focuses mainly on keeping them alive, not on allowing them to thrive.

Seniors have unique design needs, depending on their lifestyles, ages, and social situations. The following guide approaches some of the general issues that could fulfill some of those needs.

Leisure Spaces

Designing Retirement Communities With Care

Nursing Home in Batignolles, designed by Atelier Du Pont

See more photos of Batignolles Nursing Home.

Leisure spaces are important to keep in mind when designing a retirement home or community. Whether they are green, open spaces to get exercise or enclosed spaces where the users can unwind, these areas are important not only for the mental health of the community but for their physical health. In such areas, the users can engage in social activities either with their peers or their visitors. It is important that these spaces don’t feel reclusive; visual connections with the project’s surroundings are critical when designing such spaces. 

It is important to add that these spaces must integrate seamlessly with the rest of the project’s layout, otherwise, they become separate elements and tarnish the fluidity of the project’s internal interactions, turning it into a rigid structure more akin to a hospital than a home, which can affect the user’s well-being. One needs to think of these areas as any leisure area in a single family home, or even a hotel, depending on the extension and the nature of the facility. Some retirement residences include hotel-like services such as spas and hair salons for their users.

Use of Natural Light and Color

Designing Retirement Communities With Care

Nursing Home in Esternberg, designed by Gärtner+Neururer

See more photos of Esternberg Nursing Home.

Light and color can influence the way space is perceived. This is particularly true for users that can’t leave the facilities as often due to health problems. The wrong shades and the abuse of artificial lighting may act in detriment of their mental health, altering the users’ sleep cycles and in some cases leading to depression. Soft, natural light and warm textures, such as natural wood, can be aesthetically beneficial for the users. Sterile-looking environments paired with poor illumination should be avoided. Illumination is also important due to the fact that most elderly people have sight problems; dim light can impede things as simple as reading a book and could cause tripping accidents in those unable to perceive depth correctly.

When it comes to color, neutral shades such as white are the best choices, as they don’t overstimulate the user’s sight and emphasize other design elements, such as natural light and natural surroundings or accents made with other textures.


Designing Retirement Communities With Care

Alcacer do Sal Residences, designed by Aires Mateus

See more photos of Alcacer do Sal Residences.

Privacy is one of the most important points when designing a retirement home or community. Usually, these buildings blur the lines between the private and the communal, as if it were a healthcare facility. These residences are often mistaken for healthcare facilities, when in fact they are more akin to a high rise condo or a hotel than a clinic. When designing such dwellings, it is important to keep in mind these buildings are not nurseries, but homes. Privacy can be included into the design by treating their private quarters as small apartments instead of rooms if the retirement house or community is of a collective nature. The goal is to give the user as much freedom as they would get in a regular home, but with added features such as communal spaces and health facilities.

Health Facilities

Designing Retirement Communities With Care

92-Bed Nursing Home, designed by Dominique Coulon & associes

See more photos of 92 Bed Nursing Home.

As mentioned before, retirement communities shouldn’t be looked at as health facilities alone, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have them on their premises, as many of their users will need access to healthcare. Infirmaries and other clinical areas should be kept as programmatically separated from the main layout as possible, avoiding interference with the inhabitant’s day to day life, making sure to avoid turning the residences' home into a hospital.

Access to Nearby Services

Designing Retirement Communities With Care

Nursing Home in Batignolles, designed by Atelier Du Pont

See more photos of Batignolles Nursing Home.

Access to nearby services is significant for retirement homes located in urban settings. It is important to remember that the dwellers of retirement homes are not prisoners or patients. Some urbanite elders enjoy going out for a coffee or going for a walk. Keeping in mind that some may have mobility problems or conditions such as Alzheimer’s, placing the retirement home near of as many leisurely services as possible could be positive for their most active dwellers, especially if they suffer from disabilities.

Accessibility and Layout

Designing Retirement Communities With Care

92-Bed Nursing Home, designed by Dominique Coulon & associes

See more photos of 92 Bed Nursing Home.

Since some of the users may have mobility problems, it is important to keep the layout of the project as clean as possible, keeping stairs to the minimum, preferring one story layouts, using ramps and keeping the circulation of the project easy to navigate. 

If the project is big and has many different areas, some dwellers might get lost even if the layout is simple. To avoid this, it is important to design each area to be clearly distinct from others. The use of different colors and textures, for instance, could help to differentiate each area.

See more photos of nursing homes on Modlar.

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