COVID-19 has ushered in a new era of concern about global pandemics, particularly among seniors. At the same time, residents of senior living communities relish mealtimes for the opportunity to socialize with each other and to invite in friends and family from outside the community. With clear evidence that loneliness and depression negatively impact seniors’ health and shorten their life spans, it is critical to find ways to safely preserve the daily ritual of communal dining for seniors in a post-COVID era.

While the pandemic has created anxiety for executives, staff, and residents of senior living communities, we encourage them to look to restaurants and hotels for ideas of how to adapt. Rather than reverting back to more traditional seating layouts and food-delivery processes, we consider how the hospitality industry has adapted. The CJMW team foresees a number of strategies that offer options to the architects and interior designers who design the communities as well as the staff who run them:

Spread out. Spacing tables six feet or more apart will become the norm, at least in the short term. Of course, this strategy raises the question of room capacity. This potential drawback can be addressed in different ways. For example, multiple available rooms could be open simultaneously during meal service. Patios, lobby areas or other unconventional dining spaces can work as flex spaces for dining during mealtimes when social distancing is necessary. Outdoor dining, with shading structures, insect screens, and space heaters may become increasingly popular for senior living just as it has for the general public. Another option would be to schedule multiple seatings.

dining for seniors in a post-COVID era. Chef's table and the Cafe at The Village at Brookwood


Create architectural boundaries and visual reminders to help manage occupancy and traffic. Planters, booths, and similar items can be used to control traffic patterns while providing aesthetically pleasing spacing between tables. The floor design can incorporate elements such as squares of complementary but different colors of tile to serve as visual cues and easy reminders to residents to socially distance in areas where they stand in lines, such as in a buffet area.

Rethink the open kitchen concept. While the trend in recent years has been to allow seniors to watch and converse with staff as their food is prepared, a plexiglass or tempered glass window separating residents from the kitchen area offers a minimum safety standard. A longer-term trend may be a return to closed kitchens with large windows. Residents will still be able to see and feel part of the activity, and to observe staff wearing appropriate protective gear and following sound cleaning processes.

Minimize touch points and physical exposure. Having as few hands as possible touching food is always the safest strategy. For seated dining, this may mean employing “runners” who wear masks and disposable gloves while delivering food, covered by lids, to the table. Buffet lines and salad bars may be managed by employees wearing masks and gloves who put residents’ selections on the plates for them. A hybrid option between buffet and sit-down dining could be similar to the current “quick dining” options offered by many chain restaurants. Residents would place their orders, via a microphone, to a cashier behind plexiglass or tempered glass. Orders would then be delivered on covered plates by the runners.

Making cleaning visible. While in the past, communities may have tried to minimize the visibility of the cleaning process, it will now be important for residents to be able to see their eating areas being cleaned and disinfected between meals. For example, runners wearing disposable gloves can clear the tables and wipe down tables and chairs. Seating should be controlled to allow time for the cleaning solution to dry completely between guests.

dining for seniors in a post-COVID era. Market area at Hotel Indigo Asheville and outdoor dining patio at Danberry at Inverness

Expanding meal options. “Market” areas within communities can be expanded to include additional to-go options. These can range from healthy snacks to pre-cooked meals that can be reheated in a microwave. These expanded options allow residents to have some light meals in their rooms, reducing the strain on dining room capacity and reducing trips off campus to grocery stores, thereby limiting residents’ exposure to viruses. Communities that don’t already have a “market” area on campus may consider adding one.

Anti-microbial and bacteria-resistant materials can help, but still must be cleaned like regular surfaces. Many materials prior to COVID-19 already had characteristics that made them “anti-microbial” or “bacteria-resistant” and manufacturers are quickly working to develop an expanded range of such materials. Both in the short and long-term, using surfaces with these qualities will become more important. However, it is important to remember they are not a replacement for proper cleaning (as with any surface).

In summary, the design of senior living communities must strike a balance between physical safety and emotional health of residents. The social elements of communal living and the potential for development of meaningful relationships with peers and staff must remain the more important components of a community. Spaces that encourage, foster, and support the social interaction in different ways, even during the new normal, are critical to the future of senior living.