Emily Henderson

New Design Tips for Sunrise Senior Living

When i was 12 my parents told us that ‘Aunt Flossy’ was coming to live with us.  I hadn’t exactly heard of her and we already had 7 people living in the house, but i was excited that her name was ‘Flossy’, because its awesome.  Then it was explained to me that she was a distant great aunt of my mom’s who couldn’t take care of herself any longer and we were the only people left that were even remotely related to her.  So, my parents (because they are saints) took in and cared for a pretty grumpy 92 year old stranger. (not surprising, we had taken in many foster kids growing up).  

Aunt Flossy had alzheimers and was 80% deaf and 80% blind.   She was born in 1892, i think, and had stories to tell. Crazy stories. She had lived through the booming 20’s, the great depression, World war 1, 2, Korea, Vietnam….she had stories.  She lived with us for 10 years.  And while at times it was hard to have an emotional connection to her while she was here, she was such a presence in our house for so long that she was very missed when she finally passed at 102 years old. My grandma just passed away two weeks ago, and visiting her in the nursing home a few months ago in Wyoming was totally heartbreaking.  

I have a soft spot for the seniors, and i know i’m not alone in this.  

More importantly i’m a HUGE proponent of end of life happiness and dignity.  If my parents hadn’t existed i have no idea where Aunt Flossy would have lived.  She lived a full life, she volunteered to be a nurse during 2 wars, she was an elementary school teacher for like 40 years, raised 4 step-children as her own, she even got her college degree in the 1940’s  which was crazy for a woman back then….. she deserved to be as happy as possible.  But, SO DOES EVERYONE.


So when Sunrise Senior Living approached me about being a design consultant for their communities, i was definitely intrigued, and after going to one of the centers myself to check it out, i was convinced.  I’m a HUGE fan of communal living.  My friends and I talk about it all the time – we’ll buy a ranch in Topanga canyon, raise our kids and animals together, garden, make furniture, yadda yadda….the husbands think we are nutso, but they will be into it, i’m sure.   So the idea of living in someplace like Sunrise (after visiting) sounds kinda awesome.  They aren’t ‘old folks homes’ from the movies, they are very happy, warm, fun, places to live.  I met soooo many residents and asked them point blank, ‘Do you like living here?’ and all of them were emphatic about how much they loved it.  That was super important to me.  

I liken it to college – the social schedule is packed, you don’t have to work,  you can party every night if you want to, you can come and go as you please, have pets, but you never have to make a meal for yourself (and i had the food there and it was really good, i’m serious), or take a foreign language class (although you could if you wanted to).  Yes, i’m being paid to design and consult, but i’m not being paid to say any of this.  

Mary, above, and i played duets for a while – she killed me, although she was a piano bar singer for 30 years in San Francisco, so i didn’t have a chance.  They let her bring her white lacquer grand piano to the center when she moved in because they didn’t have one and she loves music so much, which i thought was extremely lovely of them.  

Plus there is a house dog, which is totally spoiled because it has 60 owners that want to walk it, play with it, and feed it every day.  

It’s awesome.    I mean, there are like 10 activities to choose from a day – games, movies, art classes, music, dances…there’s even a salon that you can get your hair/makeup/nails done for free by volunteers.  And everything is about dignity and respect.  

So my job was to come up with 10 design tips for family members or seniors to help design their apartments in the Sunrise Community.  

Because you are never to old to have a space that looks like ‘you’ and makes you happy every day. 

Here’s the problems i had to address:  

1. Downsizing – most seniors move from a house they’ve had for 30 years and have accumulated a LOT of stuff, so one has to figure out what to keep, hand down, or donate.  My rule that every piece of yours needs to be either 1. functional, 2. beautiful or 3, sentimental. So when downsizing take the pieces that have at least 2 of those things in common (if not three) and then hand down or donate the others. That beautiful side table with two drawers that you bought in Paris whilst on your honeymoon is a keeper – but the side table that is kinda rickety, that you bought from a big box store in 1992 and is dated and chipped – that goes.

2. Safety and comfort. Things need to be low-maintenance and safe for people with weakening vision or achey bones.  Crazy small/busy patterned wallpaper is not exactly invited and that low, deep sofa that we all love just won’t do here if grandma can’t get out of it.  

3. Style.  It doesn’t have to look like a commercial apartment, it can still be fun and eclectic and look like ‘you’. 

You can read the 10 tips on Sunrise’s website and blog – and please share them, i think they are extremely helpful for anyone downsizing and thinking about the needs of elderly.  I researched a ton to come up with these tips with the hope that it makes everything so much easier for seniors.  

For instance, one of the tips is to use stronger contrasting colors because as vision weakens, you need to be able to see the difference between the top sheet and the bottom sheet, or the difference between the wall color and the floor color.  Some things were obvious – don’t buy huge rectangular glass top tables – they are just begging to be be knocked daily by hips or shins but some weren’t as obvious and everybody designing for a senior should know. 

I created a moodboard of products that fit into all my tips, to help them visualize what it could look like. 

They are suggested pieces that i think are functional, stylish and safe.  They are affordable and from national retailers so if people actually wanted to buy them, they could order them (but i have no affiliation with the companies, i just like them).  I didn’t want to suggest awesome vintage pieces that would be hard to find or afford.  I wanted it to be easy and enjoyable no matter who is doing it.  

I wanted it to feel more traditional, less modern, because most seniors are attracted to traditional design more, but still hip, so i threw in some eclectic pieces.  And i needed it to feel warm, so i chose this beautiful ochre for the walls (Benjamin Moore ‘Leap of Faith’) for the top half, added a chair rail (which is actually disguising a handrail, check out the tips to read about that one) and painted the bottom half white .  As vision weakens, warmer colors are easier to see than cooler colors.  They suggested browns, beiges, yellows or reds so i liked this ochre a lot. 

Here are the pieces that i suggested, at least for inspiration:

Sofa:  ‘Landon’ Not too low, not too deep, but arm height is tall enough to help get in and out of easily.  From Pottery Barn, HERE.  

Dual purpose skirted storage bench:  Add a tray and its a table, or it could be extra seating and always extra storage.  HomeDecorators.com $259. (actually on sale right now, $191) HERE

Sconces:  they free up space on your night stand and are easy to turn on and off from bed – less in and out of the bed.  From West Elm, $79.99 (on sale right now)  HERE 

Upholstered Ottomon:  no sharp edges to bang shins, and move it close to the sofa and you’ve got yourself a very comfy seat to stretch out on.  West Elm, HERE

Carved wood side table – its round so no sharp edges, allows for easy flow through the apartment, and is chunky and sturdy.  West Elm HERE

Recliner – Yes, you know you secretly want one.  They are obviously super functional, comfortable and relaxing. And this one doesn’t look 1/2 bad either.  West Elm, HERE

Upholstered headboard – comfy, cozy, inexpensive, ($399).  From Home Decorators.com HERE

Memory wall:  Obviously pictures of family/friends is such an easy way to personalize a space, and there is a decent amount of wall space in the apartments to fill. I like this ‘gallery in a box’ by Pottery Barn that makes it easy for you, $189.00 HERE. 

Bedside table – adds storage, obviously.  From Pottery Barn, HERE. 

Storage side table:  Pottery Barn, $299 HERE. 

Accessories – throws, boxes, lamp, etc to add comfort, color, and personality all from West Elm. 

As somebody who claims i can do any style, i was psyched for this challenge.  I loved the company, could absolutely see my relatives living there happily, and it just felt good.  Aunt Flossy would have loved it.  

So here’s the scoop:

If you have somebody in your life that might potentially be living in an assisted community like this, i strongly suggest you tour Sunrise next week.  Basically from March 18 – March 24th they are having a ‘Tour of Homes’ event throughout 250 of their senior living communities and they are open to the public.  Everyone will receive my ‘Design Guide’ that isn’t available online,  which is chock full of tips and information.  

Check it out, let me know what you think and leave a comment if any of this is helpful at all to you or if you know somebody that has had an experience at Sunrise.  www.sunriseseniorliving.com