Don’t Forget the Sun as Key Design Feature for Senior Living.

When I began studying gerontology (the social, psychological, cognitive and biological aspects of aging) and researching senior living design, I toured dozens of existing senior living communities across the United States. Whether the property was upscale or inexpensive, I noticed the lack of natural light and outdoor experience spaces across the board. The design was counter-intuitive to the research and the need for designs that provided more than shelter, food and medical services was apparent. The senior living communities we're designing acknowledge that our need for natural lighting and a connection to outdoor spaces doesn't suddenly stop once we reach a certain age, but instead continues and plays an important role in our general health and happiness. James Spencer, Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, states, "Being out in the sun boosts our mood, improves sleep and promotes Vitamin D production." Vitamin D, which is manufactured when the sun's UV-B rays hit the skin, protects against cancer, bone brittleness, heart disease, and a host of other ills. Other payoffs to a small daily does of sunlight include: better sleep, a happier outlook, protection from immune diseases, improved metabolism, better sex drive and lessening of Alzheimer's symptoms. [caption id="attachment_5068" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]KSQ Design Senior Living Community KSQ Design Senior Living Community[/caption] Incorporating natural daylighting into our buildings helps shut off the body's production of melatonin (a hormone which helps regulate sleep and wake cycles), and experts agree that sunlight and daylighting within buildings has widespread mood elevating effects. Serotonin, the "happy" hormone, increases with more exposure to sunlight and daylighting. Psychiatrists recommend that people with depression should go outside in the sun for thirty minutes per day in order to boost their serotonin levels. Those suffering from Alzheimer's who are exposed to bright lighting during the day score higher on mental exams, have fewer symptoms of depression and lost less function than those exposed to dim daytime lighting, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (June 2008). Vitamin D deficiency is common among middle aged and elderly people, and low Vitamin D levels are associated with metabolic syndrome which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. A study conducted by Oscar Franco and colleagues of Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences claim sunshine can add years to your life. By incorporating outdoor  spaces into designs, we provide occupants with opportunities for a wide variety of social interactions or simply a chance to soak up some rays. Senior communities designed with opulent daylighting and inviting outdoor experiences spaces are also beneficial to the staff and visitors of senior living communities. Everyone wants to spend time in a places where they feel healthy and joyful–all the more reason to make the final season of life experience for our seniors as bright as we can.   Randy Westbrook, AIA, is KSQ's Director of Senior Living. He received his Bachelor and Master degrees in Architecture from the University of Oklahoma and Certificate of Gerontology from Tulsa University. Randy is currently managing four senior living projects in Florida.