Why Some Social Spaces Draw a Crowd: A Scientific Look at Décor & Atmosphere in CCRCs

Moving to a senior living residence brings many changes for older adults, among the greatest of which is forming new and different social networks. As a result, it becomes very important for a senior living community to do as much as possible to encourage social interaction among residents. In addition to programming and entertainment, the physical design of a senior living community can play an important role in facilitating social interaction among residents. A recent study in the Journal of Internal Design examined which aspects of social spaces in Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) had the greatest impact on how they are liked and used.

This study included 179 residents of CCRCs, and aimed to examine why some social spaces turned out to be popular gathering places while others were underutilized. The authors note that CCRCs offer a number of different venues in which residents can interact, ranging from lounges and lobbies to cafes and coffee shops. In particular, the authors were interested in areas that could be considered “third places,” or spaces that are neither work nor home. These third places are social hubs where people can visit alone or in groups to engage in conversation. Third spaces are characterized by being spaces that can host abundant social interaction and can provide an enhanced sense of community. Creating a third place is not merely a matter of just adding a coffee shop, but instead “social spaces need to offer genuineness and warmth marking the spirit of the third space.” These should be “intimate, even cozy settings” where conversation “could comfortably be the main activity taking place.”

In a retirement community setting, the authors examined whether atmosphere or décor characteristics predicted how well liked or how well used a social space was for residents. The atmospheric characteristics they looked at were whether the space was lively, playful, and welcoming. In terms of décor, they looked at whether the space was casual, homelike, and well-worn). Study participants were asked to rate how well six social spaces met these criteria, as well as how much they liked and used these spaces. In addition, they were asked demographic information and questions about the amount of social interaction that they preferred.

When the researchers analyzed the association of atmospheric and decor characteristics of third spaces with how well liked the spaces were, they found that both positively correlated with how well the social spaces were liked. The relative importance of atmosphere and décor was very close. In terms of how well used the social spaces were, again the atmospheric and décor characteristics of a space were positively associated with how well used a space was. Here, the positive association was stronger for atmospheric features than décor features. The most dependable predictor of how well liked or used a space was ranked was how lively the social space was.

While traditional ideas of third places describe these spaces as feeling well worn (such as a pub or coffee shop), this study showed that how worn or new a space was rated had no impact on how much a place was used, and there was a low to moderate positive association with how new the décor appeared and how well liked the space was.

This study concluded with three suggestions for supporting social interaction via design of CCRC social spaces. First, the researchers recommended clustering social spaces together in a floor plan in order to create a lively, playful, and welcoming atmosphere. Such centralization keeps social spaces more lively throughout the day and condenses the social activity in a way that makes chance encounters more likely. Second, they recommend employing décor that is casual and homelike, according to what residents and prospective residents themselves consider to be casual and homelike. Lastly, they suggest using materials for finishes and décor that can maintain a new appearance as long as possible. Durable materials and finishes will be less prone to show wear.


Campbell NM. Designing retirement community third places: attributes impacting how well social spaces are liked and used. Journal of Interior Design. (2015). DOI: 10.1111/joid.12035

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