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Voices: Suzanne Meltzer, R.A., Senior Designer, RDL Architects 

This article is sponsored by RDL Architects. In this Voices Interview, Senior Housing News sits down with Suzanne Meltzer, Senior Designer at RDL Architects, to talk about the market shift to age-integrated design and its applications in affordable housing. She explains how the desire for connection can be provided through housing, and she also breaks down the financial challenges in shifting to a more age-integrated model for existing life plan communities, including how it might affect the overall architecture and master plan.

Senior Housing News: What career experiences do you most draw from in your role today?

Suzanne Meltzer: For me, it’s 100% my experience with the Charrette process, which is also known as the community engagement process. I’ve been designing senior living communities for 30 years, and through those years have sought better and more effective ways of ensuring that our designs successfully address the desires and needs of all the different stakeholders including the residents, the staff and then even the wider community. Toward that end, we fine-tuned a process that was championed by the New Urbanists a long time ago, a methodical approach that is intended to ensure that everybody has a voice.

This Charrette process was further developed by the National Charrette Institute at Michigan State, from whom I received certification as a Charrette manager. We borrowed and fine-tuned many of their different tools to develop our own process. Our process is essentially a meeting or series of meetings that allow for active input in the identification of existing challenges, the development of design goals, and the mapping of solutions. We find it extremely valuable in that it gives us a snapshot of the priorities of seniors, their family members and their caregivers in real-time.

I’ve seen how those priorities have shifted over time from a focus on getting more privacy to providing more spaces for social gatherings, and now to a greater emphasis on lifelong learning and partnering with organizations to provide connections with the wider community.

What are some current trends that have addressed this desire to enhance connections to the wider community?

One of the biggest trends continues to be seeking locations for senior campuses that can facilitate intergenerational connections. In fact, that’s what drew me to my first job 30 years ago, which was working for a firm that had designed one of the earliest examples of a senior community located on a college campus. That provides a lot of opportunities for connections since you’re dealing with two different generations that have a daily, full-time population on site.

A few years ago, we partnered with a nonprofit, K-12 educational campus, and a senior care provider to develop a new senior village on the same campus as the school. The integration of those two campuses, or villages, opened up many opportunities for engagement for the seniors, including mentoring students and creating booster clubs that supported the school teams. The students, in turn, found part-time work at the senior community and volunteer opportunities with the seniors.

With existing campuses that don’t have that type of on-site connection, we see a lot of development of community event space designed specifically to invite the wider community in. One of the most successful trends has been the introduction of community wellness and lifelong learning centers that are open to the public. At a senior community in Ashland, Ohio, we designed a center that includes a cafe and bar, pool, fitness room, chapel, yoga center, and a banquet hall popular for weddings. All are open to the public. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen happen in this community as well as others is that a lot of these popular places, especially those that revolve around food service, are struggling to fully reopen due to the staff shortages that seem to have really accelerated post-pandemic.

How did the pandemic affect the approach to age-integrated design?

The desire for community connection has become even more profound post-COVID. That isolation that everyone felt when all the businesses were closed and many people were restricted to their homes, was most acutely felt by our seniors residing in the care setting. Communities responded by either utilizing technology such as Facebook and Instagram, or by creating socially distant gathering areas that allowed for family visitation, though separated oftentimes by a glass wall. But, probably one of the most interesting responses to this sense of isolation, was a return to the multi-generational household.

In fact, I ran across an article that was put out by the National Association of Realtors that the pandemic led to a 15% increase in the number of homes purchased for multi-generational households between April and June of 2020. And, while the past motivation for these types of products was typically split between adult children caring for a parent and adults living with parents to save money, the research found the top reason during this particular time period was for aging parents to move into the family home.

What is the potential for integrating this multi-generational living on a senior campus, thus encouraging a true 24-hour, age-integrated lifestyle as opposed to targeted day programming?

The desire to get back that intergenerational energy after COVID, along with the recognition that staffing shortages are hindering a return to past programming, seems to have spurred a lot more conversation around creative ways of making the intergenerational activity a more permanent and natural presence. In fact, our last Charrette held at a senior community in Eastern Pennsylvania, revolved around how we could reposition the campus to provide housing options for all ages, with many participants of the wider community saying they themselves would not want to live in an age-segregated community.

The revelation during the Charrette that only a minority of the participants would be willing to move to a traditional life plan community is not new. An interesting study done just after COVID by AARP confirmed that 79% of seniors said they would choose to remain in their current homes — even if there were challenges with accessibility — versus moving to a dedicated senior community. But the study also said that a majority of adults would choose alternate housing if it was close to a loved one that they care for or cares for them.

Given the result of the Charrette and that push for more multi-generational living, we are exploring housing options for the master plan in Pennsylvania that includes everything from multi-story co-housing options to in-law suites for adult children, or even accessory dwellings, like a carriage house, that can be an affordable option for staff. An option we developed in Ohio is a duplex and quad model that includes an apartment for a caregiver on the second floor. This project is primarily targeted to developmentally disabled young adults who are living independently but could be a great model for seniors who either want the suite for a family member or the same ability to provide housing for a caretaker.

Could this concept of age integration on a senior campus have applications for affordable housing? Are there current models in senior living that could provide affordable housing to other markets?

Yes. We worked with a number of senior communities to develop affordable senior apartments directly on their campus. At RDL, we have experience with tax credits and affordable senior apartments that are integrated into the wider community. In one of our most unique projects, we partnered with a senior provider in Middlefield, Ohio to renovate larger, older, single-family homes on Main Street into bed-and-breakfast-style housing for seniors. You’d have a large house that could have as many as four to five residents that have their own bedroom and bathroom but then they share the living areas. That has provided a very popular, affordable product that allows residents to remain in their hometown while having access to the care and services of the adjacent senior community.

A model of senior housing that could apply to other markets, with some applications in affordability, is the small house memory care model. In the community in Chardon, Ohio that was built on the educational campus, three small houses for 12 residents were built with one of the houses utilized as communal, affordable housing for a group of Sisters. And, in Pennsylvania, there were discussions that this same model, being similar to current dorm room designs, could help create partnerships that bring students to live on the senior campus.

What are the financial challenges in shifting to a more age-integrated model for existing life plan communities and how might this affect the overall architecture and masterplan?

The biggest hurdle to the age-integrated model, particularly for a nonprofit senior living community, is how to finance it without negatively affecting either the mission or the nonprofit status. In addition to that, funding sources are often targeted at very specific markets, whether they be seniors, multi-family or commercial. Introducing a different market could be an uncomfortable endeavor for a lender with a set checklist of parameters.

However, we often work with developers on mixed-use sites where land has been set aside to develop a senior component. We could certainly look at this the other way around and explore partnerships where land owned by the senior community might be parceled to encourage the development of other housing options, but even that has its challenges Many communities have zoning regulations allowing for senior campuses only as a conditional use. Introducing age-integrated housing options could affect that zoning and create pushback from the adjacent neighborhoods. This brings me right back to the importance of utilizing a Charrette process at the start of the design. Including the wider community in such a process is vital in helping to create understanding and buy-in.

In a couple of words, finish this sentence: “In 2023, the senior living industry has been defined by…”

…a recognition that the ever-increasing senior market is being challenged by the ever-decreasing availability of staff. That we need to look at age-integrated models, not only to satisfy the desire for more community connection, but also as a way to enlist the help of the village in caring for our elders.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for length and clarity.

RDL’s Senior Living Studio collectively has decades of experience, successfully completing new and repositioned communities throughout the country. Through a collaborative partnership with our clients, we create intuitive and inspiring spaces that promote holistic wellness, are responsive to the needs of residents and staff, and foster a sense of community. Learn more at rdlarchitects.com/senior-living.

The Voices Series is a sponsored content program featuring leading executives discussing trends, topics and more shaping their industry in a question-and-answer format. For more information on Voices, please contact sales@agingmedia.com.

Studies referenced in this article:

New AARP Survey Reveals Older Adults Want to Age in Place (The AARP article)

Multi-generational homebuying nears an all-time high: NAR – RealTrends (The National Realtors Association Article)

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