Making Buildings Work Better for Senior Living Communities

Elderly hand pointing at the screen of a digital thermostat.
WSU researchers are investigating how technology in senior living facilities, such as modern thermostats or microwaves, can work better for seniors.

It’s a story that has become increasingly familiar around the country: A frail parent falls. Adult children are soon sifting through memories while packing up the longtime family home. 

After the difficult decision is made to move Mom or Dad into a senior living facility, they are struggling: The microwave doesn’t work right, or the apartment is too hot or cold. The microwave, the thermostat, or lost hearing aids are suddenly a crisis as everyone tries to get comfortable with new surroundings.

“The sense that you can’t control your environment when you already have lost control of a lot of the things around you – it’s a loss of agency that we hear from a lot of folks,” said Shelby Ruiz, research associate in WSU’s Integrated Design and Construction Laboratory. “They don’t have control over their environment, and if they’re uncomfortable, they don’t really know what to do.”

As part of a seed grant through the Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living (GCISL), Ruiz met with more than 65 seniors living in nine Pacific Northwest assisted living facilities over a two-year period to study their experiences in housing for seniors.

The institute, which started in 2018, aims to educate the next generation of senior living specialists who will deal with an estimated 75 million people in the baby boomer generation who are close to or already are of retirement age. The institute is focused academic programs, industry partnerships, and research to build the future senior living workforce.

“Working in partnership with other WSU units to advance education that benefits communities is an integral function of the Granger Cobb Institute in the Carson College of Business,” said Nancy Swanger, GCIS founder and director. “We are excited to see the results of this project that will address real problems in real senior living communities.”

As part of the project, Ruiz and Julia Day, director of WSU’s Integrated Design + Construction Laboratory (ID+CL) and an associate professor in the School of Design and Construction, studied how seniors live in their facilities, including interactions with their buildings and technology, their peers, and their community. As part of the qualitative study, the researchers spent time talking with seniors about their day-to-day challenges. 

Shelby Ruiz.
Shelby Ruiz
Julia Day.
Julia Day

“This study has really been about figuring out what does and doesn’t work for seniors in their living environments” says Ruiz. “Our main question was how can we build better buildings for older folks — Our answer is that you have to do it with them.”

The qualitative nature of the study, which included in-depth interviews, provided valuable information that a typical survey and quantitative studies might miss.

So, for instance, one resident complained that with the progression of her macular degeneration and vision loss, she couldn’t find anything on her speckled granite countertop because it was visually overstimulating. In another facility, a story spread like wildfire among residents about an injury incurred by a resident by an automated fire door that closed during a power outage. Residents struggled with their microwaves or thermostats that are difficult to read or use. Something as simple as the way a door opens in an apartment can impact the lives and day-to-day comfort of the residents. 

“If we had done a survey and people filled in bubbles, you wouldn’t get the same picture or stories,” said Day. “With further research and understanding and design and policy, we can roll this information into new ways of doing things. I feel like this demographic hasn’t had a chance to be heard in this way before.”

In the project, the researchers focused on how the buildings work in terms of helping in energy efficiency, health and safety, and residents’ well-being. They also looked at technology and the literacy of technology as well as equity issues. 

“A lot of these spaces are being designed in a way that people, who are already stressed and having a hard time, potentially are even more stressed because of the way it’s designed,” said Ruiz. “It’s counterintuitive to the whole point of design – we’re looking to design better buildings for people, but a lot of findings pointed to the need for the re-design of spaces, revisiting how they function, and how they work to the people who will be using them.”

During her visits with seniors, Ruiz talked with many who didn’t have plumbing when they were young or who struggled during the Depression or World War II years. They provided unique experiences and valuable perspectives in how the built environment has changed over their lifetimes, she said. 

“When I started this, I thought it was just going to be an interesting inquiry, but I realized that this is actually very important. It affects everybody,” she said. “The more that we can understand and the better we can make these communities for our parents, friends, or family one day – That’s why I care about this so much.”

The researchers have presented their work at conferences around the world, including at the Healthy Building conference in Germany, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and the Interior Design Educators Council. They hope to receive additional funding, whether private or public, to continue the work. 

“We have a duty to design these buildings in ways that are not only equitable and safe and accessible, but also considerate to the fact that these are people, and their lives matter and their stories matter,” said Ruiz.