Fostering a healthy animal-people dynamic

Jami Mohlenkamp
Principal and senior living practice leader, OZ Architecture

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The newest accommodations at the Senior Star at Weber Place retirement community near Chicago were built for a couple named Snowflake and Licorice, and come with excellent open-air views of the outdoors, hand-fed meals and plenty of opportunities to socialize.

Snowflake and Licorice have made fast friends within the community, dispensing a unique form of therapy to fellow residents and, when they’re not too busy, laying the occasional egg. They are, after all, chickens. And as various media reports note, they were brought to Weber Place specifically to provide companionship to memory care residents.

Those residents are discovering what a growing body of scientific research shows that spending time with animals – dogs, cats and yes, even chickens – can improve peoples’ mental and physical health and well-being. Studies have found, for example, that interacting with animals can lower blood pressure and feelings of stress, and lead to increased physical activity, while also reducing feelings of loneliness and boosting mood. As common as loneliness is among aging adults, 72% of people aged 50 to 80 who live alone and/or have health issues, reported that their pet helps them to cope with their physical and emotional symptoms, according to the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.

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Findings like these are prompting older adult communities to make animals an important part of the resident experience. Today, an estimated 75% of for-profit older adult residential communities allow residents to keep their own pets, according to NextAvenue. Others bring animals into the mix by keeping a shared community pet with which residents can interact, by accommodating visits from therapy animals and/or by providing amenities such as a fish tank or aviary in a shared community space. At Weber Place, memory care residents help to feed Snowflake and Licorice, gather their eggs (which, because they are unpasteurized, are used only to fertilize the community garden) and keep the two hens company.

Creating a pet friendly aging adult community that maximizes the quality of the experience for humans and animals alike doesn’t require a huge capital outlay or a lot of extra staff labor. It does, however, require a thoughtful, practical design approach that accounts for safety, hygiene/cleanliness, ease of maintenance and accessibility.

The design possibilities for accommodating our furry (and even feathered or scaly) friends and their humans are many. A community that allows residents to keep pets could set aside units on the first one or two floors for pet owners, so they can more readily access the outdoors with their animals. Once outside, residents will need dedicated outdoor spaces and relief areas to take their pets. These spaces could be designed with the comfort of both human and animal in mind, with shady and sunny areas, benches for sitting, plenty of lighting for evening activity and perhaps an off-leash zone. These spaces should be readily accessible to residents, even those with mobility challenges (such as on the ground level, near an entrance/exit), enclosed to keep potential four-legged escape artists where they belong, equipped with poop bag dispensers, and discretely located, if possible, so they don’t interfere with residents and guests who aren’t as keen on animals.

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To make life even better for resident pets and their people, a community could offer amenities such as organized walks and other outings for people and their pets, regular visits from a mobile veterinary service, pet training expert or mobile pet grooming service, and perhaps even an indoor dog-washing station.

Many older adult communities have a resident pet on the premises as a companion for residents and staff (usually cared for by staff, perhaps with help from residents). While these situations typically involve dogs and cats, it’s becoming increasingly common for communities to have less traditional resident animals like Snowflake and Licorice. Besides welcoming residents with their own pets, the Boulders at RiverWoods Exeter, a retirement community in Exeter, New Hampshire, houses three therapy goats, Eros, Achilles and Plato, in a barn on its property. Residents can socialize with and help tend to the goats.

Aviaries, reptile enclosures and aquariums also are becoming increasingly common in older adult communities. Animal-focused amenities like these provide a biophilic benefit to residents (and staff), helping them to make the kinds of connections with nature that have been shown to improve peoples’ overall sense of well-being. Installations with birds, fish and other creatures enable residents to make those vital connections even when mobility or health issues limit the time they can spend outdoors. When amenities like these are thoughtfully located in high-traffic community areas, they don’t just make for interesting viewing, they become a gathering place and a hub for socialization among residents and guests.

Whatever the role animals play within an older adult community, it’s a good idea to design and equip the indoor and outdoor spaces in which animals spend time so they are easy to clean and maintain, so animal-related odors are well contained, and so they don’t hinder staff in their day-to-day work. This means making animal enclosures readily accessible for cleaning and upkeep, with flooring and other surface materials that are easy for staff to wash. Outdoor common areas used by pets can be equipped with a sprinkler system, artificial sod and/or a special drainage system, for example, to make cleaning quicker and easier for staff. For situations involving a community dog or cat, accommodations could include a readily accessible pet door that opens to an enclosed outdoor area, along with designated indoor areas for the pet’s food and water dishes and, for our feline friends, a litter box. Be sure these pet-specific amenities are located in places where they won’t be disruptive to staff or residents.

With thoughtful design and the right combination of amenities, an older adult community can be a place where animals and people coexist together in one big, happy, multispecies community.

Featured in the January 2020 issue of Health Care Properties Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.