Four Ways Integrated Design and Technology Improve Senior Living Communities

Exceptional quality of life shouldn’t be a luxury for senior citizens. As more people age, it’s increasingly vital for senior living communities and their designers to leverage every tool and tactic they can to support residents’ physical, mental and emotional health. By merging thoughtful design with leading-edge engagement technologies, senior living communities can provide enriching environments for elders, support care providers more holistically, and even boost the growth of their businesses.

Watercrest Senior Living Group is doing just that at more than 15 of its communities across the Southeastern United States.

A long-time client of HKS, Watercrest has become an industry leader in part by leveraging engagement technologies and building innovative independent living, assisted living, and memory support environments that support their use.

Sheena Jeffries, Regional Director of Engagement for Watercrest, believes such actions benefit both residents and staff.

 “Our mission is to honor our seniors, so we’re open to figuring out ways to make that happen and that can come from the design,” Jeffries said. “We have to be open to moments of creativity so we can serve our residents to the best of our abilities.”

This culture of experimentation and continuous improvement guides Watercrest’s design approach and care delivery model, according to HKS Principal and Senior Designer Grant Warner. He has worked closely with many of Jeffries’ colleagues, including Watercrest CEO Marc Vorkapich, who Warner says is “willing to push the limits” to create safe, comfortable residences that foster meaningful connections.

Jeffries and Warner cite four major improvements that the combined power of digital technologies and good design can bring to senior living communities.

1. Enriched Social Activities and Events

A standard technology at all Watercrest properties, iN2L is a robust engagement system with tablets, large format monitors and more than 100,000 types of programs geared towards seniors. Founded as “It’s Never Too Late” in 1999, the system is widely used at senior living properties around the country, and provides music, movies, live-streamed events, games, video chat features and educational content to supplement in-person activities. 

Small rooms at Watercrest St. Lucie West provide calm, intimate locations where residents can engage with technology.

“Human to human engagement will always be the best way to interact with residents, but iN2L is an enhancement” Jeffries said. “It can touch more senses; it can provide a richer environment.”

Jeffries said that the systems have dramatically improved Watercrest programming, aided by the community-specific ways they were incorporated in the design.

Since he first saw iN2L used at Watercrest Lake Nona in Florida several years ago, Warner has designed spaces to specifically support the technology, customizing layouts to different communities’ needs. At residences with memory support programs, for example, designated side rooms offer individuals or small groups opportunities to participate in activities or video chat in a calm, private setting. At independent and assisted living environments, however, residents use iN2L more frequently in large multi-purpose areas for group events such as live-streamed operas or movies. Working with Watercrest staff, Warner and his teams designed spaces that could accommodate the technical requirements for iN2Ls while also considering the optimal placement of the machines to promote engagement.

On a visit to Watercrest’s Market Street Viera, a memory care residence in Florida, Warner witnessed screen-based activities create a lively atmosphere and encourage diverse interactions among larger groups of seniors living with dementia.

“You can move around the space and see different groups doing different things as opposed to having the technology as a destination unto itself,” he said.

2. Increased Marketability and Occupancy

According to Watercrest’s website, “purposeful design” and “technology enhancements” are two major selling points that align with the company’s mission to serve seniors. These attractive factors can potentially contribute to higher occupancy rates, especially when prospective residents get to see the benefits first-hand.

“We’re always thinking about the customer experience,” Jeffries said, indicating that a primary concern her teams have is how to best showcase community life to visitors. When guests see empty common spaces or notice that residents aren’t engaging in planned or impromptu activities, the inclination to reside there may be diminished.

Aligning programming schedules with tour times is one staff-led solution, but designers can make layout choices that inherently elicit a more exiting visitor experience.  For example, at Watercrest St. Lucie West, which is also in Florida, the circulation route includes spaces that are often activated by group activities.

“If we’re hosting an experience, we don’t want all the activity to be in ‘the back of the house.’ At St. Lucie West, a visit includes observing the iN2L technology being utilized,” Jeffries said, noting that the design of many Watercrest communities — and the technology incorporated throughout their spaces — increases their appeal and marketability.

3. Greater Physical and Mental Health for Memory Support Residents

For seniors experiencing memory loss, technology and design can be effective tools to boost cognition and health. Warner and Jeffries have both witnessed how beneficial audio technologies can be, particularly at mealtimes when residents with memory illnesses need to focus on eating. Playing music from prior decades through dining room speakers or individual headsets can improve concentration and help people feel at ease while they eat, they said.

“Many memory support residents lose weight too rapidly,” Warner said, adding that using systems like iN2L to play familiar background music “has been proven to help increase calorie intake for memory support residents.”

Warner believes that just as familiar music can make residents feel more comfortable, design elements reminiscent of earlier eras also help residents with memory illness feel more at home.

To aid with that, Watercrest uses what Jeffries and Warner refer to as “digital memory boxes” — devices displaying photos and videos from throughout the residents’ lives. At Amira Choice (formerly Watercrest Sarasota), Warner designed hallways with digital memory boxes adjacent to residence entry ways, so they have a personalized visual cue to understand which apartment belongs to them.

Day-to-day, Jeffries says the Nixplay digital photo frames used at some Watercrest properties are a wonderful source of joy and belonging for residents. They have also improved residents’ connections with relatives who can upload photos and videos to the devices from anywhere via the cloud.

“What’s really great is that family members don’t have to be present to update those memory boxes and we can load them on our end, too,” Jeffries said.

At Amira Choice Sarasota, hallways are designed with digital and physical “memory boxes” where residents can see images, videos and objects that support memory boosts.

4. Streamlined Efficiencies for Dedicated Staff

Senior Living community staff members often have to adapt to a plethora of tools — from ones needed to track work schedules to those they use to engage residents. All of that can be overwhelming.

“Although technology is amazing, we have found that sometimes our teams can be a little shy towards it, or uncomfortable. We don’t want to oversaturate them with too much technology where they’re afraid to really dig in,” Jeffries said.

To make work easier for care partners, Watercrest has leveraged the full capacity of iN2L, which Jeffries says is “very user-friendly,” to integrate other tools like Eversound listening and streaming program systems. Watercrest also uses Sagely to keep calendars, track metrics and help them determine the effectiveness of their community activities. By streamlining their technologies, staffers can focus on what matters most — caring for seniors.

Thoughtful space planning, furniture positioning and placement of technology systems are all solutions incorporated by Warner and his fellow designers that have cultivated a better experience for Watercrest staff, Jeffries says.

“One of the things I love about Watercrest is that the design is intentional,” she said. “When entering a Watercrest community, I know there are no obstacles in the way of my care team. They are set up for success because the environment considers the population we are caring for — it elevates our ability to care.”