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. $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 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.


  1. Lori

    Reading this made me teary eyed. (I know, I'm a geek!) I have always had a soft spot for the elderly, to the point that I have worked in many nursing homes over the years, at first as a nursing assistant, and then as an occupational therapist when I graduated from college. I am so happy you are helping some of them to beautify their homes! It is so sad how they are so overlooked as a population, but have so much experience in life and have so much to offer us! This post also reminded me of a great-great Aunt of mine that lived with my Grandparents for a few years before her death. She was quite the spit-fire, and I loved thinking back on the times we spent with her, and the stories my Dad tells of her playing 'cowboys and indians' with he and his brothers when they were young. Good memories. On another note, thanks for your design inspiration. We are in the process of trying to redo what our decorator didn't finish (nightmare!) and the inspiration from your blog is so helpful. :)

  2. Jules

    The most important part of a room in an assisted living facility or nursing home is the memory wall. I say this from experience with my father after a hospital accident put him on a ventilator, damaged his brain etc.. and he was sent subsequently to 3 nursing homes where my mother and I visited him every day. The memory wall, or we had room to do a big collage, reminds the nurses, doctors, administration, staff, and most importantly the backbone of these places – the CNAs that your parent is a person, had a rich full life, and has people that care and are looking out for them all the time. I cannot stress how important this is for your loved one and for the entire nursing home. The photos also encourage conversation between the resident and staff and remind your father, mother, whoever, that there are people out there who love them. Not everyone was as lucky as my fahter to have daily visitors to remind him of this… and no one was as lucky as me to have such a wonderful father.

  3. Another Emily

    It's funny how much you can feel like kindred spirits with someone just from reading a blog. I love so much of what you write, work on, and the passion you have for it, but this one struck a real chord. I love seniors and am working with a friend on doing handbound heirloom books to help tell their stories for families. But another friend that's a lawyer was doing some research at a facility that had an empty wing a couple years ago and we got chatting about how we could take over the wing – communal living like you said – have our kids and dogs there, etc., but also help the seniors get to doctor's appointments, learn from them, take classes from them, teach classes to them – amazing stuff. I used to visit my grandmother in her Quaker retirement facility – also an amazing place – and I always said the same thing – it's just like college for older people. She took quilting class (I still have the quilt she made – she passed about 10 years ago) and her "boyfriend" was the resident handyman, fixing people's radios and TVs. Such a great environment.

  4. Ginnie

    Oh my gosh! I used to volunteer at Sunrise Senior Home in high school, and now my love for seniors has continued, motivating me to study geriatric pharmacy. I am so so so excited that you (one of my favorite designers) are getting involved with them! I also have been performing Falls Risk Assessment Tests in assisted living centers in my area, so I'm sure I learned the same things as you in terms of what to look out for in a making a room senior-friendly. Let me know if you'd like more information! I think I have a packet somewhere…
    Good luck!

  5. What a great opportunity to make such a difference in the lives of these people. I love the picture of you playing the piano, priceless.

  6. C

    Oh, Emily, oh, Emily! I am already such a huge fan. But this post just got me right in the gut. You are such a warm, wonderful, loving person. Your spirit and cheerfulness are fantastic. I just LOVE that you are doing this for Sunrise, and genuinely getting into it and enjoying it. Not to mention how helpful I KNOW your tips are. Just a wonderful, wonderful idea, and a wonderful thing. Way to go Miss Em!

  7. Sara

    How wonderful that you were able to work on such a rewarding job! My work involves elder law, and it's just great to see that a care facility would use their resources to consult with someone as fabulous as you!!

  8. Thank you for doing this. Most of my family is elderly, I even cared for my grandparents for 5 years before they had to move in with my uncle. I 100% agree that the elderly deserve respect and dignity. I appreciate this post so much!

  9. Ana

    What an awesome thing to be part of.

  10. Courtney

    What a perfectly-times post. My 92-year-old grandmother had a stroke about two weeks ago, and we're in the process of downsizing her bungalow (where she's been for almost 63 years) and transitioning her into an assisted living community here in Chicago that's very much like Sunrise. She's accumulated so much over the years, and a great deal of it has a story – it's hard to think of some of it going. The gallery wall and senior-aware furniture was already in the works, but the tips about paint colors (and the handrail trick – BRILLIANT) will certainly come in handy. I'm so sorry for your loss, but thank you so much for sharing your story, and sharing your talent with the seniors at Sunrise.

  11. Karen

    I loved your ideas…..If I had a loved one….hell, If I had to go to a senior center (I'm in my 50's) I would feel privileged to live in such beauty! You thought of everything!

  12. Nancy

    This is an amazing post. Having experienced my parents last years in Assisted Living, I can totally relate, and love everything you said. I really never was comfortable with " old people" until I had to go through it with my parents.. Now I speak the language and wanted to take all the residents in their Assisted Living aprtments, home with me. Their stories are so wonderful and they are so lonely and disconnected with their former lives, that they really light up when you ask about them and their past… So much to learn from them.
    Your ideas are great, although I find most of them have so much they bring with them from their homes, they really have to pick and choose what they can keep. Some of them try to stuff all of their home into a teeny apartment. I found most of them didn't have the money or 'wherewithall" to buy a new piece of furniture. What I found those seniors need the most is an Advocate, or someone to take the lead and help them with their apartments…great volunteer opportunity there!
    Thanks for your insights and inspiration.

  13. bobbi

    THIS is one of the reasons I love you, and love you waaaaaaaay more than just your HGTV show. I agree, seniors are so COOL and deserve good design, too :) We need to embrace all of the seasons of our lives, and not just assume that once one is past a certain age that they no longer 'matter.'

    Thanks, Emily, for being who you are.

  14. Emily, you just went from extremely adorable to The Uber Adorablest Person on the Planet! I have been lucky enough to have six great-grandparents and four grandparents in my life (my grandma is 88 and still going!). That generation is a valuable and, unfortunately, finite resource. The stories, the laughter, the triumphs, and challenges they faced in their lifetimes are a never ending source of inspiration for me. What a wonderful thing you have done! How lucky they are to have you! And I suppose that as the Baby Boomers are getting older, this type of design assisstance will become commonplace.

  15. anne_from_eugene

    I so appreciate this. Unfortunately, I think we live in a culture that doesn't show our older generations the honor and dignity they so very much deserve! What a wonderful project…I'm sure very rewarding for you, and rewarding for the folks who can live with a little more style in their world! Also, your Aunt Flossy sounds like a bad-ass.

  16. Kim

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only person teary-eyed after reading all of this and I wish I had this information handy when my Grandma was still with us. I'm in Southeastern, MA and unfortunately they don't have any facilities near me or I'd be running in for the tour and to pick up your handouts. I think the closest (according to their website) is an hour from where I live. Thank you for thinking of our elderly. My husband and I have no children and it often weighs on me of what will happen when we are older…it's scary because having worked in healthcare most of my professional life I know all too well the dangers that lurk when the elderly do not have an advocate fighting for them, looking in on them and making certain that proper care is being provided.

  17. Wow! It's like you took most of those words right out of my mouth. I've been a Senior Move Manager for 5 years now and I'm only 26! My full time job is doing exactly what you're talking about on a daily basis. Trust me, it's hard, but this advice and planning can do wonders for specific moves such as those with seniors. Specializing in moving seniors, I understand how overwhelming a move for them can be. Your post, and just the fact that you're giving the elderly style tips, gave me goose bumps and makes me so happy. I'm an Interior Design student at night, and work each day (patiently) doing floor plans, downsizing, organizing, packing/unpacking with my lovely clients! Making sure they are at ease and not overwhelmed throughout such a hard transition is always my top priority. I love what I do and the people I meet, not to mention we have their new home settled and decorated by the end of the moving day! I can't even put into words the feeling I get when I see my client's joyful faces the moment they walk into their new home on the same day they left their old home. :)

  18. JessicaR

    I've been following you for awhile and have always loved your style. But this post made me really respect you. My grandma recently went into an assistant living facility and this pulled at my heart strings. Obviously, this is not an easy situation for anyone. It is nice to know that there are people out there who care about the elderly.

  19. heather

    Thank you for such a loving and warm post. Most of all, thank you for having such a servant's heart when it comes to your talent and gift. This is huge. Huge. Huge. The lives you are touching by using and sharing your gift is immeasurable. Our elderly are so often disregarded by our society, and it is a terrible loss for our younger generations. Great job Emily. I have always been a fan of your blog, your honest approach to design and your dedication to your authentic style/self. But now I am even more impressed with (what I already thought was an awesome personality) your spirit.

    Hugs from Portland Oregon!
    Heather C.

  20. I could give you a hug right now…I worked for a non profit that served the senior community…what a wonderful way to be of service.!
    We were fortunate to be able to care for our mother at home, but she did spend a small amount of time in a facility while we were waiting for a larger home to be built. Even the small things that I brought to her room (including photos and twinkle lights) made all the difference in the world to her. A few years later when she had to enter hospice, I made sure her room had colorful throw rugs, small crystal beaded lamps, books, music and a photo gallery (as Jules mentioned above is sooo important) and she is right, my message was clear, this is a person who has lived a good life and is loved beyond words. My heart melted at your story about Aunt Flossy and your family…thank you for caring so deeply…

  21. I forwarded this post to my mom – she runs a non-profit in her rural community that helps the elderly stay in their own homes by offering services and transportation. But I know in her long-term goals is a small-scale friendly living facility where the elderly who are unable to live alone anymore can still live near their friends and community (many children move away and currently the nearest nursing home is 20+ miles away). As her decorator daughter I'm filing this away in the back of my mind for when she's ready to start planning! Sounds like a great organization – especially if they're smart enough to bring you on board!

  22. Wow, this is good stuff. I love hearing your back story about Flossy and what it's brought you to today. Thank you!

  23. Bridget

    Thanks for this post. We went through a similar experience when my mom went from her 4500SF house to a Senior Living apartment a few years ago. One of the hardest parts was her parting with her furniture and realizing she could only keep a portion of the things that had surrounded her for much of the last 50 years. Making her new house her home was a challenge but I can say she thrived in the new environment…and if not exactly 'happy' (she was very private and disliked living where everyone could know her business) she was content and more importantly SAFE in her final years. You are a good soul for taking this on as a project!
    P.S. One of my sisters is convinced 'commune' life is right for all of us (4 sisters and one brother) for our waning years…you are not alone.

  24. Katie

    I was so excited to read this. We just moved my mother-in-law into a Sunrise facility and it has really been a blessing. She has early onset Alzheimer's and we were worried that because she'd be so much younger than most of the other people there that she'd have a tough time. But she really loves that there's music every day and my husband and I can both see a huge improvement in her daily life. She has friends, she gets out and takes walks and she's finally able to relax. The Sunrise facility put us in contact with someone who helped us decide what should be kept and what to give away which was also very helpful.

  25. Jenn

    I have always been a fan of your design aesthetic, show and fun blog. But you won my heart with this post. I also have have such a soft spot for seniors and it makes me so sad that so many people overlook them. Bravo to you for helping to brighten lives of people who truly deserve it!

  26. Jessi

    Just catching up on your blog…I moved a month ago and don't have Internet yet! (ugh) I love this post and your tips. When getting my interior design degree one of our senior year projects was to design a senior living facility and this brought back so many memories! You put a lot of thought and research into this (basically summed up a whole semester of college) and I think it's great! I'm sorry to hear about your grandma passing. I'm sure she was very proud of you! xo- Jessi