Germ-zapping robots, living ‘pods’ and hands-free elevators: How COVID-19 has upended the future of retirement home design

Laveta Brigham

The impacts of COVID-19 and worries about viruses to come are upending the seniors housing industry, particularly when it comes to safety, experts in the area say. As a result, designers and operators of retirement homes and seniors facilities are exploring innovations and new technologies aimed at helping better protect […]

The impacts of COVID-19 and worries about viruses to come are upending the seniors housing industry, particularly when it comes to safety, experts in the area say.

As a result, designers and operators of retirement homes and seniors facilities are exploring innovations and new technologies aimed at helping better protect residents.

Whether it’s new air and water purification systems, robots that zap germs, new surface materials that mitigate the spread of viruses, or living arrangements where smaller numbers of seniors are grouped together in “pods” that enable more social distancing, the rush is on to incorporate these emerging approaches, experts in the retirement and seniors living industry say.

“For decades, those engaged in planning, design and public health have focused on chronic diseases and their impact on vulnerable populations like the elderly,” says Bob Murphy, an architect and president of Murphy Partners, a firm in Toronto specializing in seniors housing.

“The repercussions of this virus, and the fear of subsequent ones, will alter every aspect of the seniors’ housing industry as we know it,” he went on to say.

Murphy says his firm, which launched in 1985 and has been involved with design work for more than 100 seniors facilities, mostly in Ontario, recently launched an in-house project dedicated to researching and analyzing best practices and concepts from around the world pertaining to accommodation and the care of seniors in the new pandemic reality.

The firm’s research, which can also be applied to nursing home settings and long-term-care facilities, has delved into areas including touchless technology, artificial intelligence, innovations pertaining to ventilation and the spatial separation of people, sterilization and disinfection, new methods of screening people for illnesses like COVID and the science around materials and surfaces that can mitigate the spread of viruses.

In addition, retirement homes are increasingly moving toward providing more memory care and physical care, and that, with the new realities of COVID, provides increased need for “virtual care” where specialists communicate with residents by computer, says Cathy Hecimovich, CEO of the Ontario Retirement Communities Association, the voice for the province’s retirement home operators.

“As a result we need more robust broadband and greater Wi-Fi capabilities,” she says, adding that seniors homes are increasingly giving residents access to iPads and computers.

Hecimovich says the way in which physical space in retirement homes is designed will also need to be considered more carefully going forward.

“We need to look at the layouts of our buildings. Large congregate dining areas for example aren’t the safest way to go in the future,” she says, adding that “grab and go meals” and less buffet-style dining will probably become the norm.

Seasons Retirement Communities, which operates residential communities and housing complexes for older adults in Ontario and Alberta is “re-imagining” dining spaces in its newly constructed communities, including installing “micro-markets” that enable residents to dine independently and on the go.

Retirement homes are privately paid-for residencies where seniors who are able to direct their own care live. The services offered can include dementia and memory care, some assisted living and short-term stays.

Ontario’s Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority oversees 773 retirement homes that house more than 60,000 seniors.

(Retirement homes are different from long-term-care facilities, with the latter providing medical and personal service care for people who can’t live independently. Nursing homes are said to provide the highest level of care for seniors outside of a hospital.)

Murphy describes retirement homes, nursing homes and long-term-care facilities as “perfect microcosms” for the spread of disease — closed systems, tight quarters, minimal ventilation, with staff often moving from building to building, room to room spreading germs and viruses.

“Corridors aren’t usually designed for people to pass six feet apart (for social distancing). Neither are elevators. All of these things become touch points for cross-contamination,” Murphy points out.

“Calling the elevator by pushing the button. Washing your hands and touching faucets. The rise in development of touchless technologies is taking off (to address this). Calling an elevator on a cellphone … all of a sudden everyone needs to have these things,” Murphy adds.

The use of ultraviolet light to kill viruses is also becoming popular, he adds. He referred for example to a product produced by San Antonio, Texas firm Xenex — called LightStrike, which is billed as a “germ-zapping robot” that uses “pulsed, high energy, broad spectrum UV light technology” to deactivate viruses including COVID-19.

The devices can disinfect a room in about 10 minutes, the company says.

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The machines cost about $135,000 (Canadian dollars).

Murphy goes on to say that infrared fever scanning systems such as those used in Asia could serve a useful purpose in retirement homes here.

“The machines spot people who have higher body temperatures. So you set up a check point. People show up on the scanner at different colours based on their body temperature. You can pick people out of a crowd who have a fever,” Murphy explains.

Irka Dyczok, whose Toronto firm DesignFarm creates designs for retirement homes and long-term-care facilities, says these facilities have to step up their game when it comes to air circulation systems.

“Air handling systems and the technology that occurs for this. If you want to prevent the spread of disease in any congregate living you have to raise the bar when it comes to dealing with those things (air, germs, particles) that you don’t see.

“The control of air and how it moves around makes a big, big difference in terms of how environments spread disease,” Dyczok says.

Hecimovich, from the Ontario Retirement Communities Association, says her organization is constantly on the look out for innovations that improve safety for residents, including improved cleaning solutions, germicides, materials and surfaces that can withstand intense cleaning, and other advances.

“We have 600 commercial partners and a commercial partners committee. We have a ‘Dragons’ Den’ approach to emerging technologies, products and services. We cultivate innovation and also look for who has what, with a focus on safety,” she says.

Aside from technology and new discoveries, Hecimovich believes building designs for retirement housing are moving toward creating smaller, self-sufficient hubs for residents within larger buildings or communities, a model that is conducive to social distancing.

Larisa Brodsky, principal of Larisa Brodsky Architect Inc., an operation in St. Catharines, shares support for this design idea, which she describes as a “pod.”

“A 10-15 person pod (a section) with its own services such as personal support workers (PSWs) and food delivery. That is ideal,” Brodsky says, adding she has used the concept to design a group home for people with dementia.

Murphy says new technologies and innovative retirement designs don’t necessarily come cheap, but extra expenses are worth it in the long run.

“There’s no question regarding added costs. But look at it another way — the billions of dollars spent reacting to a situation (COVID-19) that no one anticipated.”

Donovan Vincent

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