Feels Like Home

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Experts in design, mental health and retirement living share advice on how family and loved ones can help seniors prepare for a new residence

Photography courtesy of THRIVE ON SKIDAWAY

THE TRANSITION FROM A LONGTIME HOME to a retirement or living facility can be accompanied by a lot of uncertainty and fear for some seniors — especially if the move isn’t voluntary. “It’s very common for seniors to feel a sense of loss and that everything they’re familiar with is changing,” says Kim McGraw, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker at Shrink Savannah who has worked extensively with seniors. “Culturally, it can also be difficult for this age group to share their feelings of depression or anxiety, so it’s even more important to encourage frank, open conversations and make sure family members really understand how their loved ones are doing.”

In addition to helping seniors mentally prepare for a living transition, there are plenty of ways family and friends can help older adults make their new living space feel like home, from thoughtful interior design choices regarding light, paint color and furniture, to smart decisions about downsizing ahead of the move.

Here, interior design experts, mental health professionals and retirement community staff share their best advice for helping loved ones feel settled in their new space.

While some may want to take care of all the details for their loved one to make the move less of a hassle, this well-intentioned thought isn’t actually helpful, warns McGraw. “They’re already losing some of their independence with the move. You want to be careful about taking even more of that away,” she says. Instead, visit potential living communities together, and when it’s time to get settled in a new space, make decor and design decisions together, too.

“They’re already losing some of their independence with the move. You want to be careful about taking even more of that away” — Kim McGraw

Since retirement living spaces are typically smaller than their homes, seniors often need to downsize ahead of the move. But a decluttered space not only helps a room feel more spacious, from a design perspective, it’s also a positive for safety. LeRia Hudgins, resident director at The Social at Savannah by Thrive, a senior living facility, recommends having clear pathways to the bathroom: that means no end tables, baskets or other decor items in the way. “It shouldn’t be difficult for a senior to get to the bathroom when they need to go in the middle of the night,” she says. Another simple decluttering trick? Choose light paint colors to create a more airy space. Living quarters at The Social at Savannah are painted light khaki — with a light blue accent wall — for a neutral, spacious finish.

Elsewhere, Kim Perna, director of sales and marketing at Legacy at Savannah Quarters, says the assisted living community avoids carpet throughout its one-level space to make it easier for seniors to get around safely. “We don’t want our seniors getting tripped up or running into any kind of walking impairment,” she says.

“Ideally, seniors feel like they’re walking from their old home to that same home, just in a new location,” Perna says. “Don’t go out and buy all new furniture — you don’t want loved ones to walk in and not recognize what’s in their own space,” she says.

Better yet, McGraw recommends bringing a senior’s favorite recliner, chair or other comfort item into their new space, as well as making sure the room has pictures of family members or other family traditions to remind seniors they aren’t alone, even if their living situation has changed. “Especially given the pandemic, we’re never sure when visits may be limited again, so be proactive in telling seniors when you’re planning to visit or what the new plan for Christmas is going to be,” McGraw says. “You want to do everything you can to reduce the loss that’s already occurring.”

Don’t be afraid to experiment with a combination of natural, overhead and floor lighting to create the right ambiance for comfort. Avoid fluorescent and other stark lighting that can make a living space feel like a hospital. Libby Boyden-Price, founder of Libby Boyden Interiors, recommends a cool white LED light for kitchens, while a warm LED light can work well for a bedroom or living space. “Cool lights do tend to be brighter, so it’s great for areas where seniors need to be able to see well,” she says. “As we get older, we need brighter light to see — that’s simply a part of aging — so I’ll sometimes recommend cool lights for bathrooms and closets, too.”

Improved lighting was a central point of recent renovations at The Social at Savannah by Thrive, which saw living and common spaces redesigned to have bigger windows and chandeliers replaced with brighter, more modern lighting. “It made such a big difference in terms of how inviting and welcoming the space felt,” recalls Hudgins. “This was important to us, since seniors so value the social aspect of our community.”

While a clean, decluttered room can make a space feel larger, not to mention safer for seniors to navigate, be careful it doesn’t feel sterile. “You don’t want the design to be too minimalistic so that the room feels cold,” Boyden-Price says. A simple and affordable way to create a cozy vibe is to have a mix of textures across the space. For example, pairing a chunky throw blanket with a simpler couch, or placing a mirror next to a piece of art on a wall can create a contrast that adds personality and warmth. “Even replacing blinds with drapery can make the room feel more comfortable.”