Alexis Denton, AIA
Photography: Gregory Cowley

Alexis Denton, AIA, works in SmithGroupJJR’s San Francisco office and focuses on the design of senior living communities. A gerontologist and a member of AIA’s Design for Aging Knowledge Community Advisory Group, she advocates for transforming the perception of “what everyone expects ‘old folks housing’ to look like.” For Denton, changing perceptions starts with changing the way a senior living community looks. “My pipe dream is to create a place where anyone might walk by and think, ‘I want to live in a place like that,’ ” she says.

I came out of school, like any architect, wanting to do high-design–type stuff, but my first job at SmithGroupJJR was a veterans’ home in Los Angeles. I started on it from the beginning and toured similar communities; they weren’t places anyone would want to live in. It didn’t make any sense; the caregivers were super-passionate but the environment rarely seemed to match that attitude.

A lot of people still feel uncomfortable talking or really thinking about aging. They don’t want to accept that they may eventually need this sort of environment and care for themselves. The other factor weighing on public perception is the image of the old-school highly institutional nursing home. But it’s been about two decades since “assisted living” offered seniors an alternative. In either case, design was an afterthought. Now there’s no question that design affects behavior and how you feel every day. The goal of the AIA Design for Aging Knowledge Community is to be the go-to place for all designers to find research that centers on how the environment impacts an individual or a group’s quality of life.

When it comes to aging in place and adapting homes for aging, there’s the big challenge of the isolation factor. What senior living can do is to provide the social aspect, which is maybe the most important aspect of aging. While many people want to age in place, to adapt their own home for the future, that outside element will be missing. Aging in place is getting a lot of press lately, especially as demographics continue to shift here and in China, but it hasn’t been fully figured out yet.

What’s interesting now is providers who are combining the two approaches. In San Francisco, there’s a new concept in development that includes a community center on steroids for older people who live at home. They’ll provide transportation to this “mall” of services and activities so they can spend their day there and interact, and then they’ll take you back home. As an architect, that’s an interesting blend of aging in place and senior living. And that’s why this is such a super-cool industry: There is a lot of opportunity for small changes that really matter, or even upsetting the existing model entirely.—As told to Steve Cimino