Dignity and choice are what we strive for with all our design for seniors. The trend in senior living design has evolved past the traditional long-term care, hospital-like model. Today’s elder communities are designed to promote wellness, independence, and social interaction.
The dining experience in senior communities has always been a key consideration in the design process — residents look forward to each meal as a chance to visit with friends, build relationships, and enjoy camaraderie. The importance that residents place in breaking bread and creating fellowship cannot be underestimated. The central dining hall, as the only option for meals, has been waning as residents have desired a more personal and dignified dining environment.
Now the very benefits of mass socialization opportunities have been outweighed by the detrimental aspects of large-scale dining. While a large central facility had ample room for dining in shifts and satisfying the 50% occupancy mandate that was in effect because of COVID, this stop-gap approach didn’t consider diminishing staff availability to cover the increased shifts and the multiple chances for increased exposure to residents and staff.
To the SWBR team, the answer was clear: trends already pushing to decentralize the dining hall naturally increased options and provided multiple, alternative venues for dining. When decentralizing a dining spot, new kitchens or food preparation areas must be added, more compartmentalized eating areas are created, and increased circulation must be considered.
With staff availability continuing to be a challenge, decentralization and scalability of these venues also allows planning for staffing shortages. A morning coffee bar that turns into a lunchtime grab and go which then transitions into a bar in the evening can use the same full time equivalent (FTE) staff to serve all those functions. Additionally, adding a point of sale (POS) system eases the ordering and payment process with less demand on staff.
Each community is different and therefore must be evaluated independently, but by devising strategic solutions and applying them creatively and with flexibility, our team has found new ways to respond quickly to each community’s needs, specifically in the food service arena.
Decentralization of kitchen facilities and meal service areas can provide the following benefits:
- Bistro dining, accommodating fewer diners, allows socialization on a smaller scale with thoughtful placement of tables, enhanced circulation and flow
- Grab ‘n Go and prepared food options allow residents to select their food and dine in their room or other location of choice
- A larger selection of available foods
- Staged dining expands choices of where and when diners may come to the table
- Formal dining, as most traditional communities have had in the past, can still be offered
- Room service gives residents flexibility of dining in their room when they choose
One successful example is St. John’s, who is committed to offering a variety of dining spaces that appeal to their residents. One of the team’s design options centered on dining but flexed to create an exterior/interior connection with a large expanse of exterior folding partition, integrating the courtyard with an activity zone. Other elements allowed their daytime ice cream bar to morph into an evening socialization and cocktail bar, and increased dining options through a hybrid market café.
A recently completed project for Jewish Senior Life gives residents the opportunity to connect with nature, dine, socialize, exercise, and relax. The expanded exterior dining and lifestyle option draws residents outside and increases the use of a rarely used patio, providing more choices for dining and access to fresh air. The redesigned space integrates the pond with a new patio, decks, trellises, seating, a fire pit, and a cooking space that includes a woodfired pizza oven. A new sound system facilitates outdoor lecture series, happy hours, and live music while senior and ADA compliant furniture prioritizes mobility, independence, and user comfort. Incorporating creative measures in areas with shorter warm-month seasons necessitated that the design solution included exterior firepits and trellises with overhead heaters to extend the usage of the spaces into colder months.
The trend toward decentralizing dining in senior living communities is not new. As designers, we have long understood the social, health, and wellness benefits a dignified dining experience offers our seniors. While dining options enhance the residents’ mealtime experience, it also addresses the safety and staffing issues resulting from the pandemic.