Going beyond green: Sustainability for seniors

In today’s sustainable building environment, the connection between a building and its surroundings has become an important element of the overall design. But for the senior community, that interdependence is even more essential. The landscape surrounding senior living facilities creates connections, between residents and each other, visitors, staff, and the restorative power of nature itself.

Carefully chosen building orientation and sight lines, plantings, materials, walking path routes, and other elements provide those connections in a way that is safe for a population with varying needs and challenges – from memory care, to mobility, to desire for human connections and companionship.

Designing a safe, comforting space

One of the most important design considerations for many senior living communities is memory care. Many senior care facilities are now designed around that concept, with easy-to-navigate hallways and connections, a familiar, home-like environment, and colors and signs to help with direction. That interior focus is matched on the exterior with a landscape that also meets the needs of residents with memory challenges. For these types of communities, the landscape design often begins by targeting residents’ typically stronger long-term memory.

Therapeutic gardens are designed to create a recognizable and comforting environment made up of materials that are common in the area where most residents come from and, thus, familiar. In New England, using wood fencing and trellis, familiar paving materials, and plants found in people’s gardens at home create that familiarity.

To combat the safety concerns associated with lapses in short-term memory, these materials are carefully selected for safety, presenting no danger if touched or ingested. In addition, looping paths, rather than dead ends, connect outdoor spaces to help residents navigate their way back to entrances or familiar seating spaces. The outdoor space can be enjoyed passively by sitting and watching birds and butterflies, eating meals, or visiting with others; or they can be enjoyed more actively through the walking paths, gardening opportunities, or lawn games.

What’s more, the landscape is designed to also appeal to residents whose mobility restricts them to spending most time indoors. Architects and landscape architects work hand in hand to pair appealing outdoor areas with appropriate building spaces, such as having long-term-care areas overlook active gardens so residents who have to stay inside can still enjoy the outdoors.

Using the landscape to make connections

That was precisely the approach taken at NewBridge on the Charles, a senior living community in Dedham, Massachusetts. The community—which ranges from independent living cottages to a long-term care facility—shares its campus with a private elementary school. That makes the landscape critical in both connecting the generations as well as maintaining some privacy between them.

Accordingly, site features and connections to the school correlate with the needs and interests of the different types of residents. For instance, 1.5 miles of walking trails along the perimeter of the campus and the Charles River, community gardens in raised beds, playground spaces between the school and residential buildings, and athletic playing fields situated close to the assisted living and long-term-care areas provide opportunities for seniors to enjoy socializing with or watching kids play, whether they’re inside or out.

The naturalized landscape was designed to foster shared environmental education as well. That allows seniors to volunteer in nature programs at the school, kids and seniors to get involved in gardening and restorative planting efforts, and both the young and old the opportunity to walk the trails and learn about their surroundings from the many interpretive signs. Those signs educate residents, students, and visitors about the 100 preserved acres of natural habitat surrounding the campus, including natural meadows, vernal pools, and a stormwater best-management practices system that includes the reuse of roof water for irrigation.

On the flip side, site planners were also careful to integrate the location of the school and its supporting buildings so they preserved the individual identities of the school and senior communities. With the entire campus built to universal standards, seniors can easily move from one site to the next for events, volunteer opportunities, and other activities. However, buffer trees and other vegetation separate the school from more private areas of the NewBridge campus to ensure the kids aren’t too disruptive to residents.

A purposely designed landscape – one that makes the connections between site and resident wellness – is creating a truly sustaining and sustainable sense of well-being for senior residents that goes well beyond the contribution that green design alone can make.

About the author

Joe Geller, FASLA, is a landscape architect and vice president at Stantec. Based in Boston, Joe oversees Stantec’s planning and landscape architecture business in the United States. Over the course of his 30-year career, he has been involved in all aspects of project management, site master planning, and design, including the complicated permitting and development of the NewBridge on the Charles community.

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