Health Matters: Redefining Environments for Aging

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We are all getting older. This is evident in our lives and in our communities as Boomers reach retirement age. Yet today's aging population is not the typical retiree from the yesterday. People are living longer, healthier and more independent lives today. And they are delaying moving into environments for aging much later, instead choosing to remain independent as long as possible.

When they do move, they generally are older--85 on average--and do so only when they can no longer live independently, have more complex medical needs, and require higher levels of acute care.

To address demographic changes, many healthcare organizations are reassessing their operations to add or expand environments for aging. And just as Boomers are redefining the image of aging, today's senior communities are projecting a new image--transforming the institutional look for homelike environments that accommodate healthcare needs, support lifestyle preferences, and promote well-being throughout the aging process.


Residents are at different stages on the continuum of care, and changing health needs are an inevitable part of aging. Environments for aging generally fall into six categories:

  • Independent Living - 65+ communities with no healthcare services.
  • Assisted Living - Some healthcare services in independent communities.
  • Transitional Care - 90-day stay after inpatient hospital procedure.
  • Nursing Home/Skilled Nursing - Long-term care with skilled nursing care.
  • Memory Care - Communities for Alzheimer patients.
  • Hospice - End-of-life care.

While each serves distinct markets and health needs, each also shares similar design goals to create a sense of home that enhances the dignity and self-determination of each resident.


Four principles can guide your planning and design process.

  • Social - Create a neighborhood concept by clustering resident rooms or apartments around a common space for daily activity and interaction. Regionally inspired artwork, finishes, materials, furnishings and colors can evoke comfort for residents. In addition, resident rooms should provide spaces for family and friends.
  • Spiritual - Providing areas of respite, reflection and spiritual connection is important for residents. Introspection and spiritual respite can occur in multiple areas, such as a private alcove surrounded by gardens, a chapel for prayer, public areas for music, access to nature, or simply a place to sit quietly.
  • Medical - Residents have varying levels of mobility and medical needs. Safety should always be at the forefront of planning. Environments need to include quick and efficient access to medical equipment and materials for a daily schedule or moment's notice.
  • Physical - Incorporate unconscious and conscious design cues to support safe mobility. For example, outdoor walkways can appear glaring to seniors. Tinting surfaces a slightly darker color creates a more secure environment that increases residents' independence and decreases dependence on staff.


Swift County-Benson Hospital (SCBH) in western Minnesota is applying many of these design strategies as it addresses changes within its community. Facing a growing aging population, SCBH is working with HGA to increase outpatient services, convert existing inpatient beds to a Memory Care Unit, expand the existing Assisted Living Building, and potentially add Skilled Nursing.

SCBH additionally is positioning the campus as a community destination that serves a variety of functions. For instance, amenities include a demonstration kitchen adjacent to the restaurant to promote nutrition, a community wellness center, and an interactive digital installation to engage children and families as they visit campus. Together, these amenities humanize the healthcare services, creating a sense of home and community.

Similarly for Juliette Manor Nursing Home in Wisconsin, HGA worked with ThedaCare Medical Center-Berlin to design a 37-bed skilled nursing facility that provides short-term rehab care, stable long-term care, and memory care.

Planning organizes each population type into distinct wings, in which gabled roofs, simple clapboard siding and fireplaces in community spaces create an intimate scale for the one-story structure. Finishes and materials reflect the rural setting, projecting a familiar feel while abundant natural lighting, gardens and courtyards provide access to nature. A new road connects Juliette Manor to adjacent Berlin Hospital and ancillary healthcare services.


As the population continues to age, healthcare organizations have the opportunity to expand their services. When planning new environments for aging, remember:

  • Identify your market within the continuum of care.
  • Plan environments for aging that reflect community culture, location, and pride.
  • Add personal touches that connect to home, memories, and comfort.
  • Integrate a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces that support spiritual, social and community activity.

Topics: Healthcare


HGA is a national leader in healthcare architecture, engineering and design. 

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UP CLOSE: Alanna Carter

Alanna is a Healthcare Principal specializing in environments for aging.

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