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15 Decorating Tips for Assisted Living

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenOctober 4, 2013

What’s new in interior decorating? Decorating for seniors! With the growing aging population, there’s not only a need for effective decor in assisted living, there’s also an entire retired population who can enjoy the daily ambiance and functionality more than most. Learn more.

Functional, safe, comfortable and convenient. These are a few adjectives that come to mind when considering assisted living. Today there’s no need to move into a dreary, white-walled senior living environment. Instead,  baby boomers have reinvented what it means — and looks like — to live in assisted living communities, adding stylish and fun to that descriptive list.

Bridging Comfort and Functionality with Style and Design

We recently caught up with Interior Designer, Cecilia Arroyo with JPC Architects, who provided some interesting pointers on decorating for an assisted living environment. Seniors want to bring the comforts of home with them when they move to assisted living. Remember that moving can be hard enough, so part of the planning process should be creating a smooth transition.


Here are 15 expert tips to help you make a loved ones’ new assisted living space not only comfortable, but a place they’d like to call home.

1. Identify What’s Truly Important To Keep

No one knows a loved one better than you. Make sure you bring their favorite belongings, but remember the space is most likely a lot smaller than the family homes they are moving from. Try to recreate the look and feel of what they enjoy with their beloved pictures, decor and books — but avoid clutter. Consider gifting items to friends or family or donating items that will most likely not be used.

2. Take Living Space Size and Layout Into Consideration

Make sure you’re aware of the new space. If a loveseat fits better than an entire living room set, improvise. But also keep in mind the deep, cushy couches may be hard for your loved one to get out of. Consider a firmer cushion that they don’t sink into when they sit. Simplicity is the name of the game. Remember that less is more when trying to thrive and open up a small living space. Additionally,  furniture can also be used for balance when moving through the space, so make sure to keep walkways clear. You don’t need to waste money on new furniture. Recreate the look and feel of your loved ones’ previous home with the furniture and accessories they already own that fit well in the new space.

3. Be Creative with Storage

Depending on the space, there may not be a lot of storage. Consider a stylish ottoman that incorporates storage that can also double as a coffee table with the addition of a tray. If a loved one has an armoire or bookshelf that fits well in the space, this can help add a little functionality to the space.

4. Prevent Falls

Make sure walkways are clear for walkers, canes or wheelchairs, by accounting for tripping hazards, such as unsecured rugs or electrical cords, to help prevent falls. You can either tuck cords behind furniture or consider cable management products that enable you to secure cords to the wall.

5. Improve Accessibility

Think of your loved ones’ daily routine when designing the new space. Keep phones by sitting areas or near the bed and put frequently used items in drawers or cabinets that are easily accessible to your loved one. Make sure light and lamp switches are easy to function and switch cabinet/dresser nobs with pull nobs, if needed.

6. Optimize for Space Visibility and Choose Optimal Colors

We all know that eyesight changes as we get older. Strong contrasts in color between furniture, surrounding walls, drapes and floors can improve visibility during the day. Neutral and warm palettes are best for decline in visibility. According to Arroya, “Colors play an important part of design. Healing colors such as greens, yellows and certain blues have been used as methods of biophilia or biomimicry. Both of these terms translate into our imitation of our natural environment.” Also, at night, make sure pathways are lit with motion-sensor nightlights. Light sconces are a great way to add chic and easy lighting options.

 7. Make Sure the Bathroom Is Functional

Most assisted living communities will already have handicap-accessible bathrooms, but there are additional things you can do, if needed. Place comfortable seating in front of the sink and/or shower for grooming purposes. Install grab bars near the shower, tub and toilet and non-slip strips on the shower floor, if not already there.

8. Consider Round, Non-Glass Furniture

Sharp corners and glass can cause injuries. When deciding on which furniture you should take, try to eliminate furniture with sharp corners and glass. If you must bring rectangular furniture with sharp corners, consider installing rounded plastic corner encasement that blends in with the decor and protects from sharp edges.

9. Make Sure Kitchen is Bright and Well Lit

Remember that good nutrition is paramount for aging loved ones. It’s important to keep the kitchen stocked with healthy food and snacks throughout the day and night. Adhesive, under-cabinet lighting can help with evening or nighttime snack preparation.

10. Avoid Busy Patterns or Designs With Dark Spots

Busy patterns can cause angst or confusion for aging loved ones; especially those who suffer from dementia. Dark spots can look like dirt spots or holes for someone with vision loss. Try to keep decor simple and meaningful — incorporate family photos into wall art or canvas prints. Or bring some of your loved ones’ favorite artwork.

11. Think Tactile

Touch is a huge sensation for the elderly, especially for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Think cozy and comfortable when it comes to blankets and throws, but also incorporate lace, fur and denim to help excite the senses and stimulate memories.

 12. Be Careful With Staging

Avoid plastic fruits and vegetables — and even berries on silk plants — as these items can easily be mistaken for food.

13. Enhance Appetite With Optimal Dining

Primary colored bowls can enhance appetite. Think bold yellow, blue and red when it comes to bowls and dishes as they contrast well with food. Also consider bowls and cups with two handles for better grip and consider scented electric candles (never use a candle with a flame as this presents a fire hazard) for pleasant smells that can stimulate the senses.

14. Encourage Social Interaction

Keeping an active social life is one of the most important ingredients for happiness as we age. Make sure your loved ones’ space has plenty of guest seating and display interesting art, photos and/or award that can evoke interesting and meaningful conversation. Consider creating a personalized shadow box to incorporate a loved one’s favorite life mementos and memories for others’ to see. If a loved one plays bridge, cards or chess, make sure the games are easily accessible.

15. Add Final Touches and Create a Restorative Enviroment

Give loveseats, chairs and bedding a boost with accent pillows and cashmere throws. Garnish the walls with enhancing and personalized pictures and decor. Arroyo notes, “Many people associate healing with nature, therefore by imitating a space with outdoor features such as color, texture and light can help make a person feel in a safe place.” Arroyo did research at Washington State University that was based on creating a restorative environment between nurses and a hospital setting in Kootenai, Idaho. “I learned through research and personal accounts that you can start to restore someone’s health by restoring their environment.”

Designing for Life

Remember, it’s important to make the living ambiance one worthy of a life’s accomplishments. Creating a space that enables your loved one and has stimulation and socialization opportunities will make autumn years more enjoyable. Arroya discusses why incorporating activities into a space design is also effective:

“I believe creating activities for our loved ones can also help them feel needed and loved. Let’s say adding a plant or creating a small accessible garden, allows our senior citizens to feel included when it comes to watering the plants and watching it grow. I believe as designers it is our responsibility to consider how a person interacts with a space and to better the relationship.”

Pour a little love into the space, consider your loved ones’ personality and what environment will make them thrive, and most importantly, have fun.

What decorating tips have worked well for you or a loved one in assisted living? Share your tips in the comments below.

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Dana Larsen
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Dana Larsen
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