Ask a handful of Senior Center Directors to describe the perfect “in-their-dreams” community and fitness center and you’re likely to receive responses that vary as much as the communities they serve.
Some might dream of having a state of the art aquatic center where active adults can swim laps or take a water fitness class while rehabilitations patients work with physical therapists in warm water therapy pools. Others envision an indoor walking track, a fully equipped fitness center, or enough space to host a robust group fitness schedule.
However “ideal facility” is defined, most senior living communities are acutely aware of the impact that a senior friendly fitness center has on their ability to pursue their mission and serve their clients effectively. At the forefront of their mind are questions like, “How can we create a space that serves the varying needs of the multiple generations we label as ‘older adults’?
And, “How can we maximize the space and resources that we have to create a program that serves everyone’s needs?”
Let’s take a deeper look at the challenges, options, and solutions that today's senior living communities face when designing fitness and community centers that will serve their clients today and well into the future.
The many challenges to designing senior-focused fitness and community centers.
I recently had an illuminating conversation with a gentleman in his early 70’s about his struggle to find a fitness center that he felt comfortable working out in. He’d visited his local recreation center and senior center a few times, as well as a local health club, and didn’t feel comfortable in any of them.
At the senior center, the few pieces of workout equipment were in the same general area as a gathering spot with couches, tables and chairs. “Working out right next to people who are sitting around and visiting made me feel very self-conscious - like I’d walked into someone’s living room and started lifting weights in the middle of their conversation.”
At the local recreation center and health club, he felt out of place and intimidated by the workout equipment, the classes, and the people. “Most of the people there seemed young, fit, and like they knew exactly what they were doing. The whole experience made me feel overwhelmed, ignorant and, well… old.”
The problem many seniors are facing today is that most exercise facilities available to them are not focused on serving the needs of an older adult population. Recreation centers and health clubs are generally focused on serving younger generations, offering tons of choices for children, teens, young adults and middle age parents, but very few options for the 55 + crowd.
As a result, a growing number of Senior Living Communities are trying to serve a multi-generational population, often comprised of both residents and non-residents. A single community might be tasked with serving the last surviving members of the Greatest Generation, alongside depression-era babies who are now in their 70’s and 80’s, and Baby Boomers in their 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s.
This poses all sorts of challenges. Older adults with limited mobility must to be able to find services conveniently located close to the entrance. Many seniors look to a community and fitness center to provide opportunities for them to meet their social, emotional, recreational, and physical fitness needs. Because most community and fitness centers are multi-use spaces, sensitivity to sensory input is a challenge for seniors who have a difficult time dealing with whirring cardio equipment, clanging weights, music, chatter, chaotic interiors, and clunky equipment.
Another challenge is communicating a vibrant community life to potential residents. Unlike a recreation center or health club, it’s critical for Senior Living centers to be able to showcase offerings that support a holistic approach to meeting the needs of residents through each dimension of wellness– spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional, and physical. Often this must be accomplished through tours of the community and fitness center, making further demands on space design and organization.
Essential elements of senior-focused community and fitness centers.
Whether you are looking for ways to improve an existing building to better serve current residents or clients, or planning to build new facility to accommodate future growth and changing demands, there are several key elements to keep in mind.
Effective planning for multi-use spaces.
For many program directors, a primary objective is to ensure adequate space for social activities that are separate from workout areas while keep programing flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of residents. These goals generally mean that single spaces must be used for a variety of activities.
This can be challenging because for a community serving a diverse range of ages and ability levels, multi-use spaces must be universally accessible and user-friendly, able to accommodate a variety of activities, and adaptable to future needs.
For example, a single room might need to host a breakfast meeting in the morning, a sewing group in the afternoon, and a balance clinic in the evening.
Multi-use spaces and falls.
One of the most surprising challenges in planning multi-use spaces is flooring. Community and Fitness Center flooring is problematic, in part because falls are such a serious concern.
Ideally, the flooring for every given space should be based on its intended use and users. However, because most spaces in a senior center are used for a variety of purposes by people from a wide range of ages and abilities, this is virtually impossible for most communities.
On a daily basis, people wearing rubber-soled shoes, smooth soles, dress shoes and tennis shoes will walk across the same floor, posing different hazards when paired with a floor surface that provides too much or too little grip. The use of assistive devices like walkers, canes, wheelchairs, and scooters adds a whole new dimension to the discussion.
The good news is that innovations in flooring are resulting in new slip and trip-resistant products that incorporate quiet, soft, non-glare benefits of carpet with the durable hygienic properties of hard flooring. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- The appropriate design, installation, and maintenance of flooring is just as important as the kind of flooring itself.
- If your facility will involve a variety of flooring products, the transitions between spaces should be planned to promote awareness and safe passage from one space into another.
- Wherever possible, look for ways to provide additional supports for safe navigation, such as decorative handrails and enhanced lighting.
- If the interior design plan includes patterns and various colors in the carpet or tile, remember that some bold, high-contrast patterns can cause perception confusion for people with visual or cognitive impairments. For example, it’s not uncommon for dark patches on light backgrounds to be perceived as recessed areas—even holes—by seniors with depth-perception problems or even minor dementia.
- If you have flooring that requires waxing, consider using a matte finish wax product to reduce glare-related problems.
Providing Unique, Distinctive Amenities
Most of today’s senior living communities are working to incorporate specialized amenities that younger prospective residents are looking for. These include in-room computers and campus-wide Wi-Fi signal, voice-activated technology and virtual butlers, on campus juice and coffee bars and fine dining options, and fitness centers that are equipped with technology driven exercise equipment designed specifically for seniors.
Senior Focused Exercise Equipment
One of the advantages to designing a fitness center that caters to an older population is a higher level of care with which members are likely to treat the facility and the equipment. Communities can feel good about investing in higher quality equipment knowing that older residents are likely to treat it with respect. In addition, high-quality exercise equipment with a sleek design and non-intimidating appearance can go a long way towards creating an atmosphere of upscale comfort that can attract new residents.
In this way, many new or renovated senior living fitness facilities bear little resemblance to the senior centers of old, with their sterile, institutional feel. Rather, the design is trending toward offering residents a resort community experience.
A key part of this experience is equipping the fitness center technology driven easy-to-use equipment with a sleek, non-intimidating design.
"Building a fitness center and equipping it with HUR machines was essential because having a quality on-campus fitness option is something potential residents are looking for. Building the fitness center was necessary if Fuller Village is to be competitive in the marketplace moving forward."
~Andrea D., Marketing & Operations Director of Fuller Village, MA
HUR SmartTouch is a computerized exercise and operating solution automatically loads each user’s personalized training program, adjusts the seat, sets the strength training resistance level, and counts the repetitions and records the progress. The technology allows older adults to track their progress in real time which helps fuel motivation and strengthen their commitment to consistent training. Unlike traditional strength training equipment found at most community recreation centers and health clubs, HUR machines empower older to train independently in a non-intimidating environment.
Senior-Focused Community and Fitness Centers of the Future
Baby-boomers are driving significant shifts in senior living, and forward thinking communities are rising to the demands for programs and amenities that support active aging and living well.
Some communities are expanding or improving their current facilities to continue to provide the kinds of services and programs they offer today, while remaining vigilant and responsive to shifts in demand. Others are actively engaged in dropping programs they regard as obsolete and repositioning their philosophy, approach, and facilities in dramatic ways.
Beneath it all, the core values of senior living communities remain constant: the desire to support the independence and quality of life of older adults, through a broad mix of programs, services, and amenities. To this end, we believe that the future contains more communities that are deliberately and insightfully planned to support active aging.