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Unbelievable! Senior Communities Not Set Up for All People!

Photo of older adult gentleman by Unsplash.

Photo of older adult gentleman by Unsplash.

Today, I want to focus on a recent experience I had helping a client. Let’s make up a name for this client and call him ‘Ted’.

After having some serious medical conditions over the past year, Ted ended up in a new rehabilitation facility to get better before going back to his house. Ted noted that this new rehab facility was actually part of a senior community, specifically a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), which means that the senior community provides different levels of assistance to people depending on their needs, like making meals or giving nursing care.

I’m calling this senior community a CCRC for the remainder of this blog now that you know what I’m talking about! This particular CCRC has a rehabilitation unit, long term care unit, memory care unit, assisted living section, and independent living section.

(Sidenote: CCRC’s are all the rage nowadays! They market to our parents and grandparents HARD CORE by saying things like, “Move in here and you’ll never have to move again!” “We help you ‘age in place’.”

But with my experience working in CCRC’s, some facilities will make you move to different parts of campus to access more intensive services, like memory care or skilled nursing. Basically, it’s a flat out lie saying that residents will “never have to move again”, since they cannot receive all services in one part of the community.

And clinically, I’ve seen a lot of damage happen to people who are forced to move from the independent living section to other parts of the campus where nursing assistance is provided. By damage, I’m talking about people missing their friends, finding a change in routine, working with different staff, confusion by changing location, etc. It’s not pretty!)

Back to Ted. So Ted found this brand spanking new CCRC to be the cat’s meow. He toured it, talked with the management, and decided to move into the part of the CCRC where he is considered to be independent in taking care of himself.

Photo of two older adults sitting on a bench outside by a pond by Unsplash.

Photo of two older adults sitting on a bench outside by a pond by Unsplash.

After seeing this CCRC with my own eyes, I don’t blame Ted for moving in. It’s definitely luxurious with all the amenities anyone could possibly want: fitness area, pool, happy hour lounge, transportation, concierge, etc. This CCRC is gorgeous with late 50’s and early 60’s influence in the decor which allows residents to reminisce on pop culture and historical events from their prime. This place looks like a fancy hotel, which makes me think they want to attract residents with certain attributes.

Trust me, certain environments are built to appeal to specific kinds of people. I’m not saying outright that this CCRC’s intention was to rent to seniors who had a certain amount of wealth and the ability to walk and take care of themselves. But in certain circumstances, you can’t help but think this is a possibility.

Within the first 24 hours, Ted noticed a couple of problems with his brand new senior community apartment. He was shocked to discover that the apartment was not 100% set up for him to “age in place”. Unfortunately, Ted’s medical conditions made him wear out easily when getting ready in the morning and while showering. He identified two major problems:

1) He couldn’t sit down at the bathroom sink to do his morning and night time routine.

2) He was having a hard time keeping his balance and managing the heavy, glass shower door while stepping in and out of the shower.

So Ted called me because he knew I could help him figure these things out.

(Quick rant: why don’t senior communities make a sink vanity that’s height adjustable for their residents? I understand they think the cost of having maintenance move things, like plumbing and countertops, between renters is a huge hassle. But it would keep their residents more independent and more likely to rent their fancy, expensive apartments for longer periods of time. If you think about it, it’s actually an investment to make specific features of senior apartments accommodate the individual resident.)

Anyway, Ted’s bathroom sink vanity did not allow for Ted to sit facing the sink and place his legs underneath the countertop. There was a cabinet under the sink with doors that swung outwards, which made it possible for Ted to shove his long legs underneath. However, the sink plumbing was not insulated and could easily burn Ted’s skin if he was running hot water.

So, not a great situation.

Photo of bathroom with ability to sit down at vanity by Decoist.

Photo of bathroom with ability to sit down at vanity by Decoist.

When you have people sitting down, ideally they would sit comfortably with their legs underneath the countertop with the ability to sit upright at a 90 degree angle at the hip, knee, and ankle joints. The only option we had was to place a light weight, non swivel chair with a backrest in front of the sink. Ted’s legs can’t go under the sink, which make him lean forward to access the sink faucet more than I’d like. At the very least, he can sit at the sink in the morning and evening to brush his teeth, shave, comb his hair, etc. in order to save energy and go about his day.

Now for the step in shower. Like I mentioned, the step in shower had a heavy, glass shower door on the right side of the entrance and a glass shower panel on the left side. To make Ted’s balance better while stepping over the two inch shower lip, I recommended placing a floor-to-ceiling pole to the left of the shower entrance. This is an easy to install tool that doesn’t take up a lot of floor space. It allows Ted to grab onto something to steady his balance without reaching outside of his center of gravity. Boom! Win for all!

Photo of floor-to-ceiling pole from Home Depot

Photo of floor-to-ceiling pole from Home Depot

(Another rant: for Pete’s sake, why did this brand new CCRC not install barrier free showers in every single apartment? If Ted had a barrier free shower, he would NOT have to step over anything. His balance would remain intact because he would simply walk in and out of the shower.

Again, I think it was a money issue from the CCRC’s perspective. However, my point is you save more money over the long term when you make design decisions that accommodate all people of all abilities.)

Why not put yet another grab bar next to the shower? Well, we couldn’t because of the glass shower panel. And I’m not a fan of suction cup grab bars (click here to see why!).

These are just two issues that one client had in this specific CCRC. Everyone has different needs to fit their abilities for day to day living. I’m not trying to be unfair and hate on this CCRC. I saw lots of positive design aspects as well as negative ones. All I’m saying is, there’s plenty of room for improvement for designing senior communities that claim they help you “age in place”.

Hey, do you or someone you know live in a senior community? Have you noticed anything that could be improved upon or is there something you really like about the design? Share this in the comments below! Tell us what you want to learn more about!