Originally posted on Multifamily Executive

By Carl Malcolm

Senior communities are focused on providing comfortable living that will make occupants feel at home even as they transition from their own houses to a larger communal living environment. Almost everyone defines themselves as part of a certain culture—sometimes more than one—and in an effort to cater to everyone, many developers have ended up with generic solutions that, while inclusive, don’t feel like home to anyone.

Creating senior living facilities that are targeted toward certain cultural norms is one way to ease the transition and prolong a feeling of inclusiveness.

Identity and inclusiveness

A newer trend is for senior living targeted to one specific culture, such as two example projects for Muslim and Asian seniors. These projects cater to their respective groups’ cultural identities without being exclusive, inviting others in the community to take part and celebrate cultural diversity. As this trend grows, developers are focusing on groups that have definable attributes, such as a shared religion or a regional identity.

In both the example communities—Muslim and Asian—the traditional family dynamic has been for seniors to live with their children in multigenerational housing as they age. Today, subsets within the cultures are adapting the American approach of seniors not living with children.

These seniors are looking for a different experience than the standard “old folks’ home,” and developers are seeking insights into how they can serve these emerging demographics.

Culture-Centric Design Strategies

Defining the right cultural characteristics

The starting point for a design that has culture at its core is asking the right questions to find out what characteristics define people as a cultural subset. Finding out what is key to their cultural identity helps illustrate what typical activities—daily and throughout the year—are part of their lives.

Understanding their activity patterns helps define what types of spaces they will need. For example, a typical retirement center in east Texas might have a craft room, to accommodate groups who get together weekly to quilt or do similar activities. When discussing plans with the Muslim seniors, the design team was surprised to receive the feedback that they don’t do crafts as a group, but they do frequently cook together as a community, so a robust kitchen was more important for them than a crafting space.

To tailor the design, teams can start with the standard list of amenities and activities that are essential for most projects and then refine those for the target community, based on their feedback.

Defining the right regional characteristics

 In planning the Asian community, the team first had to define what region most of their residents were from. In turn, this allowed them to identify the cultural traditions of their target group so they could enlist the help of an appropriate feng shui expert. The expert helped them to define how to site things correctly, as well as how to facilitate the flow of energy through both the site and the individual units.

In the traditional arrangement of multiple generations living together, aging family members are more likely to experience a mixture of quiet and active spaces and opportunities to get outdoors.

Developers try to recreate the positive aspects of this mix, while avoiding culturally significant drawbacks, such as an inability to see the outside window in the front door when it is open. Optimizing natural light is normally a hallmark of multifamily design, but in some Asian cultures, open windows can be interpreted as an opportunity for money to fly out the window, which turns a popular design feature into a liability from a cultural perspective.

Designers and architects from other cultures can discover these nuances by talking to potential residents and asking what they want in a community.

Translating Culture into Built Environment

Supporting residents’ needs

To create senior living that feels like home for the target demographic, designers are tasked with finding out how the built environment can support their needs. For design teams, this is often the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the process but can also be the most challenging.

The primary challenge: working out how to strike the balance between a design that accommodates the culture in a meaningful way without being a stereotype. The key to figuring out the prevailing design strategies and why they are constantly evolving is to approach every meeting with an open mind and remove built-in cultural assumptions from the equation.

By listening, watching, and learning from the stakeholders, designers can contextualize the project and learn what questions to ask as they begin to customize the design.

Designing for the right programs

Programming in any community comes down to preferences and activities: Walk through a typical day in the life of residents, as well as inquire about how they celebrate holidays and other special events.

One example, in the Asian community, is centered around very specific outdoor spaces. As in the window example, the standard design solution of offering a balcony or a pool deck would not have suited the seniors in this development. The people in this group preferred an outdoor space that was more communal, close to the building for easy access but with views to nature. Swimming was not a popular activity, but the residents were interested in a water feature of some sort—a fountain or several fountains people could gather around and listen to the water.

Because their approach was driven by pointed questions, the team was able to provide not just any outdoor space but the right outdoor space to serve the community.

Key Considerations

Evaluating design elements through interpretation.

To design a really successful culture-based senior living facility, an evaluative interpretation is critical. It’s of utmost importance for the design team to ask questions and listen to the community they are serving, just as they would with any project.

Because so much new information is associated with a groundbreaking project like this, it helps to talk to a variety of people—property managers, tenants, teams who have successfully completed similar projects in the past—to compile a comprehensive list of both areas for improvement, including root causes, and things that have worked well in the past.

A meaningful design response

In market definition, a new twist on the standard methodologies provides a targeted approach that is meaningful and makes the design response more concrete. In many ways, the key elements designers need to refine to match the culture are not much different from what the masses are looking for.

The design response is a shift that is fairly subtle from an outside perspective, but the small changes have a significant impact on the people who live there.

Small changes, significant meaning

Accommodating residents’ religious practices is an example of a small design change that is pivotal to residents. In the Islamic community, for instance, devout groups pray five times a day and certain ablutions, preparations, and cleansing rituals are required as part of those prayers. Designers needed to accommodate the ritual, so they asked not only what the process was, but also how they could make it easier and safer for elderly people. Specific devices cater to these activities, most of which can be installed in a normal bathroom or kitchen. For foot washing, however, seniors need a specific device, called a wuduh. A younger person could simply use a bathtub, but for an elderly person, this can be hazardous so a solution for this ritual is designed into the space.

For the Asian community, meanwhile, connections to the natural world were an essential piece of the design, making the wooded site in the example project ideal. Creating a connection to nature is key to this cultural connection, but it can be difficult to do in many places where senior housing is located. The key is to create meaningful connections to the natural world and green space wherever possible, given the characteristics of the site. From a feng shui perspective, it is important that the connections are managed properly, with clear paths or views from one natural element to the next. One popular design element was hanging lanterns in the trees, which was approved by the city more easily than such elements might have been for a more generic project.

Planning for an evolving project

These types of projects can move very slowly for several reasons, resulting in a master plan that tends to evolve with each new discussion. It takes longer to conduct research when cultural learning curves, in addition to the normal project planning and execution, are a factor.

Another factor can be financial, when the target group is a culture that deals strictly in cash or keeps all the lending within their own community, resulting in a narrower equity pool with greater competition. Despite the challenges, these projects are often some of the most rewarding for designers, who get to work on something unique that strengthens a community while simultaneously providing opportunities for outreach by opening these unique venues to the public. In the process, everyone involved learns something new about a culture they may not have been well acquainted with before, and the entire community becomes more inclusive.