Experience Design in Senior Living

Glowing Older with Sarah Thomas: Focus on the Experience  

When discussing innovation in senior living, who better to call on than Sarah Thomas, an expert in senior living, technological innovation, and experience design. Thomas is the founder and CEO of consulting firm Delight by Design, a Nexus Fellow, as well as a 20-year veteran and leader in the aging services industry. She was recently interviewed on the podcast Glowing Older, Innovation in Senior Living. The conversation ranged widely from issues of design and technology, to resident experience in senior living. 

Here are a few highlights:

What is ‘experience design’?

Companies come to me to help them shift the narrative of the experience in aging. Our team is helping to redefine products and services as we know them, with this idea of designing for all, as we are all aging. The focus is on intentional, inclusive, inspiring designs that foster a sense of purpose, and look across all dimensions of wellness. We want to help our customers bring things to market in a non-discriminatory and inclusive way, that attracts people at a really emotional level, and that delights consumers at every age.

Who are the clients of Delight by Design?

Our clients range across the spectrum from consumer brands to products that are disrupting the market on the technology side and the startup side. But we also see investors who are looking to understand the space. It’s a pretty noisy space–a lot of people are entering it. We help companies and products succeed, and we also help consumers and investors understand which products they should adopt.

Tips for existing senior living facilities:

It all goes back to the human-centered approach. We often forget that. If someone is living in their own home, they want to know they can preserve the quality of the lifestyle they currently have if they move into your community. They also want to enhance their life with the new, beautiful, and wonderful things that come from moving into senior living: the community, the amenities, and the support systems that are in place.

People want a sense of belonging, purpose, and community. They’ve had all those roles in their lives, with their families and friends and community, and we have to recreate those. We have to allow opportunities for creating and making, giving and caring for others, civic engagement, thinking and sharing. We can’t just offer passive experiences. We have to offer true and purposeful engagement. 

And subtle changes can be important. We can update colors to elicit emotional reactions we’re looking for. We can create a sense of focus or attention in the library setting, for example, or an area to energize or to calm. 

What are the technology trends in senior housing?

There’s the on-demand nature of our human experience and customer journey that we have every day, with Uber and DoorDash, for example. We’ve seen connectivity and the experience of our work environment shift with Zoom and Teams. Well, older adults have experienced these trends as well. There’s a variety of trends like these in the consumer space that we need to understand and to adopt in every setting, to improve the overall experience and to meet expectations.

Technology for its own sake is useless. But implemented technology can lead to better efficiencies, better outcomes, and a greater quality of care and of life, by automating some of the workflows we have. We have better business intelligence, better actionable insights, and we’re using data in a different way. This is going to improve our programming and our operational approach in senior living. 

How can senior living deliver on the wellness promise?

Wellness is not just fitness. Not only do we want to get people moving better, but we want them intellectually stimulated, socially and emotionally engaged with a focus on mental health. It’s important to foster spiritual growth of individuals and address their shifting and evolving spiritual needs as they age. And of course environmental: there are ways to add beautiful design to allow for environmental optimization. 

And the vocational side is often missed as well. People have this arbitrary notion of retirement, and then the vocational piece is done. But, in fact, we need to find purposeful activities for people. We need to really engage them in activities that give them a sense of purpose and meaning, and a sense that they’re contributing. What do they want to learn? What do they want to do to engage with the people in the spaces around them? Wellness can’t just stop with more exercise programs. We need to look at the human experience, and what people are craving and needing to feel fulfilled across all dimensions of wellness.

What gets you most excited these days?

It takes a really special group of people to want to be in this field, serving older adults. We’re hard on ourselves and on each other for not moving the needle fast enough, but I think this industry is really well-intended and really wonderful. What excites me the most is that we’re finally looking outside our industry for inspiration and motivation to make change. We can always improve. We need to learn from hospitality, from travel and leisure pursuits, and from brands that are helping to improve the consumer experience. I’m glad we’re picking our heads up a bit and looking beyond the walls of senior living and into other industries, to learn from their expertise and to enhance our own experiences.

Listen to the full podcast

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