Insider Knowledge in Senior Living Design – Where's Fido?

I recently got back from a long business trip - 32 hours in the car bisecting the Southeast. I spent time in a conservative city in the mountains, and in a touristy beach community on the Gulf Coast. What was common about both locations, and all of the towns in between? Everyone was travelling with his or her dog.

Twenty years ago, you did not see this phenomenon. Dogs did not travel with their owners but instead stayed at a kennel, as hotels and other businesses did not accommodate them. Dog ownership, according to Research and Markets (2019), has grown 30% in the past decade to over 100 Million owners in the United States. Dogs and other pets have become surrogate family members who accompany their owners everywhere. On my trip, I saw dogs staying at my hotel, at outdoor eateries, in retail stores, and even in one of the seminars that I attended. Hotels and many other commercial establishments had to revise their pet policies in order to stay competitive.

Like with hotels, 20 years ago you did not see dogs living in a senior community. A few communities had a cat who would roam the hallways, or service dogs who came to visit once a month, but that was the extent of pet friendliness. Most seniors who moved out of their homes into a community had to adopt out their dogs prior to relocating. Today, residents do not want to go to a senior community and leave their animals behind. Baby Boomers who are entering senior communities are far more likely to own a dog or cat than the generations who proceeded them.

If your senior community is not pet friendly, you are losing customers and revenue. So more and more communities are joining the cause and allowing pets, especially dogs. Nevertheless, there is a problem. We are accommodating pets but not designing for residents who bring their pets with them. As I noted in my previous articles -
“Age produces a completely new level of design complexity”
Here are a few of my design thoughts:

  1. The Dog Park – Every senior community I have developed or built in the last 7 years has included a dog park. So often, the dog park or dog walk area is at back of the property. Reaching this area can be a challenge for residents who are not very active or who have mobility issues. Residents often have to walk from their room down a long hallway, ride an elevator, exit the building, and cross a busy parking lot or service road, all with a dog in tow. Having a dog park is a great amenity, but the park needs a location close to the building, with adequate wayfinding, and level lighted pedestrian access to it. Moreover, the building design should always include other egress points that have direct access to greenspace, in case there are residents unable to walk to the park.
  2. The Dog Friendly Unit – Another option is to have dog-friendly units on the first floor that give residents direct-access from their rooms to greenspace. These units could command a premium price, offer pet specific options, and have a terrace door leading to the community lawn, or even to a small privately fenced yard. Being a dog owner, the shortest trip from your couch to the potty area is the best route. Housekeeping staff will thank you.
  3. The Pet Floor – I recently saw a statistic put out by the senior care referral service, A Place for Mom, where 40% of their calls were from future residents asking about pet policies. Unfortunately, not all of your residents will like the idea of having pets in their building. Allergies and noise are often the chief concerns. I was recently at a H.J. Sims conference and had an in-depth ‘dog’ conversation with a senior living operator. She was trying out the idea of segregating pet owners and non-pet owners by floor in one of her new buildings. While coordination of leasing was a concern, she believed that by congregating pet owners together, it may lead to greater resident socialization and reduced tenant conflict with the non-pet owners.
  4. The Pet Building – Instead of making a few select units or an entire floor dog or cat friendly, why not start with the entire building? Begin with flooring. Loop carpets can catch nails and be unwound easily, and hardwood scratches. Premium vinyl plank not only looks like hardwood, but many brands come in water-resistant or waterproof styles. Pet accidents will happen, be prepared. In addition, vinyl plank is softer than other flooring types and can reduce the impact of resident falls. Use healthcare-grade materials on the furniture. These materials offer moisture barriers and stain resistance, great for seniors and even better for seniors with pets. Add a pet pantry for residents to buy dog food, treats and other supplies. Create a community ‘BARK’ room. This can be a place for residents to socialize with their dogs, a place for dog agility training, a place for a doggy daycare, or all three. Also, do not forget cleanliness. Add a pet spa.
  5. The Pet Concierge – There are clear health benefits to seniors who own dogs. According to Tufts University Cummings School of Medicine (2019), benefits include “improved mood, reduced anxiety and a desire to get well faster.” However, many senior dog owners, even those who consider themselves active adults, have mobility issues. While not directly related to building design, why not add a pet concierge to aid residents with dog walking and bathing. The concierge could also help set up veterinary appointments, food deliveries and doggy dates, as well as manage the pantry with purchasable pet supplies. A concierge is a great service for the residents and miscellaneous income for the community.

Instead of adjusting your building to accommodate pet owners, why not plan for pets early during the design stage. This is not a fad; dog and other pet ownership are on the rise. For the senior resident, in addition to having a daily companion, there are obvious health benefits to owning a pet. For the community, this is a great marketing tool. Due to the strong bond between owners and their pets, which I can attest to personally, your future residents will seek communities offering pet-friendly accommodations, unique pet amenities and pet-related services.

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LandSouth Construction, the Southeast’s premier general contractor, specializing in multifamily, senior living, and mixed-use development, was named one of Engineering News Record’s Top 400. Since 1998, LandSouth has transformed ideas into best–in–class communities. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. LandSouth has completed more than 25,000 multifamily units. For more information, call LandSouth’s Marketing Coordinator, Kaley Robinson, (904) 760-3188, or visit