COVID-19 has affected people and health care systems in multiple ways. Previous flu seasons and outbreaks have demonstrated the challenges of infection control and prevention for vulnerable populations living within the parameters of a closed community.

Meg Sutton, director of interior design at Direct Supply, says that while isolation was also felt during previous flu seasons, it has been a larger issue during COVID, which has led to more client focus on safely visiting family.
In her role within the design and construction arm of the company, Sutton works on technical and creative development, professional development of her team, business development and quality control, and memory care interior design.

“What we have seen come out of COVID in terms of design has to do with this idea of dividing\conquering, or creating smaller environments from larger environments,” says Sutton.

Generally speaking, memory care design has always been about limiting exit points and limiting the risk of elopement. “Here that’s still a concern, and it’s still something we incorporate into the designs we do, but now it’s also about how do you get people safely in and out of the building,” says Sutton.

Changing Dynamics

A priority nowadays for Direct Supply design clients has been how to enter spaces without traveling through other parts of the building, which is something that was not seen before. “Our challenge was how do you create an environment that allows you to see your family regardless of what’s going on in the outside world rather than having this locked-down mode,” says Sutton.

For memory care specifically, having separate entrances available for not only staff but also for families and visitors when allowed to enter into those sections of the building has been critical. “It’s been really important, and one of the ideas that we’ve come up with and that we’ve seen implemented in some areas is this idea of a transition space for memory care,” says Sutton. “This space should be adjacent to the exterior of the building, so again you’re not traveling through other areas of the building to get there.”

Think of a space where a resident, family member, an art teacher, or a visiting physician can enter the memory care space from the outside. “Your exterior space in general and outside space is your first line of defense,” says Sutton.  “How you enter this transition space has become really critical to maintaining relationships outside the building.”

In an assisted living community, one may see a discovery room, a closing room, or even a hospitality suite. “Any of these could potentially be converted or otherwise adapted to that transition space,” says Sutton. “It doesn’t have to be large, and it needs to be occupied by only a few people, but it needs to be accessible from inside and outside.”

Another example is a community that has a transition lobby between the assisted living portion and the memory care portion. “Again, that was originally focused on elopement, but that type of space can also be converted into a receiving lobby where people are coming in directly from the outside, depending on where those places are located,” says Sutton.

The Great Outdoors

When thinking of spaces where there is a low risk of spreading illness, an outdoor space like a courtyard comes to mind, but there are caveats. While outdoor dining has been a trend for some time, often, seniors don’t use outdoor space because it’s uncomfortable—either too hot, cold, or windy for a fragile population.

“You can’t just take an outdoor patio and throw some chairs on it and call it a rest in space and expect residents to take advantage of it,” says Sutton. “You really need to make sure that it is well-shaded and well-protected from the elements as the best way to encourage people to use it, especially when you are dealing with a fragile population in assisted living or memory care,” she says. Then comes programming—activities that draw people to the space and help everyone understand how it’s being used.

Staying Ahead

In a challenging year of COVID, collaboration and coordination have taken a different tone for Sutton and her team, which is spread all over the country. The team meets weekly to talk about what’s going on, what the trends are, and how to stay creative. One of the ways is offering a review to help clients stay safe and ahead of the curve.

“We offer our clients a COVID review,” says Sutton. “We take a look at their floor plan—either an existing one that needs refreshing or floor plan upcoming. We talk about how we can divide and conquer the population given their issues with COVID.” Indoor air quality is a large component to the health and wellness of a building, and it is frequently discussed among clients.

Future Focus

Expect to see a big uptick in renovation and repositioning in the future, such as adding additional beds or adding memory care into assisted living or independent living, says Sutton. This pertains most to providers that were doing well before the pandemic and are continuing to do well, picking up failing communities or aging assets and adding them to their portfolios.

Changes in ownership play into that shift and will lead to marketing communities in a different way, such as marketing separate entrances for staff and visitors.