In 2007, the first of the Baby boomer generation turned 60, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2010, 100 million people in the country will be 50 years old or older, totaling nearly one-third of the country’s population. As these seniors and retiring baby boomers prepare for the next phase of their lives, many will consider moving into senior housing, which will, in turn, become an exploding market and a huge opportunity for electrical contractors prepared to meet the needs and new profile of this demographic.

Unlike earlier in the 20th century, today’s seniors remain in their own homes, active and healthy, decades beyond age 65. Years ago, the only choice—if you decided to no longer live in your home—was to move into a retirement community. If a person needed some help with personal care, a facility that offered “board and care” was the only choice. And if someone needed a lot of help with personal care, or skilled care, they moved into a nursing home. Today’s senior housing alternatives, however, include a variety of retirement communities for independent living as well as numerous options for those people who are having difficulty continuing to manage independently.

According to Christopher Place Senior Communities, Ann Arbor, Mich., senior housing alternatives are now generally divided into five basic groups. Independent living, or congregate, facilities are primarily apartment buildings that contain a significant amount of common space to accommodate dining, recreation, activities and other support services. Units range from studio apartments to two- and three-bedroom units. Assisted living facilities provide a special combination of housing, supportive services, personalized assistance and healthcare to residents. Current industry practice is to build freestanding assisted living facilities with an average of between 40 and 100 units, depending on factors such as market forces, site constraints and program orientation. Skilled nursing facilities provide comprehensive nursing, in addition to housings, meals, transportation, housekeeping and assistance with instrumental activities of daily living and long-term care for residents. In addition, some facilities specialize in certain types of disease care.

Continuing care retirement communities (CCRC) typically are congregate independent living facilities with assisted living and/or skilled nursing facilities attached or adjacent to their locations. They provide a continuum of care, allowing residents to receive increased levels of assistance without having to move.

The last group, specialized senior care communities, often is related to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care and services. Care is provided in a more residential setting, and the facility’s levels of assistance and supportive services are designed with the needs of the resident in mind.

The types of units found in senior housing also are changing and can be different in various parts of the country. The use of bungalows is found primarily in rural locations, and they usually are church-sponsored or adjacent to nursing homes and built in clusters, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Washington, D.C.

Cottages, which offer larger living areas and can be configured as single, double or shared units, usually are found in modest suburban locations and are owned and operated primarily by a service provider or are an adjunct to established nursing homes.

Campus-style senior living, according to the NAHB, range in size from 130 to 150 units per building and typically are three- to four-stories high. They feature independent living in larger, full-service apartments with varied entertainment areas and community spaces for amenities and activities. Such campus-style buildings often are linked to intensive assisted living, dementia and acute care programs.

Mid- and high-rise projects, found in urban locations, can range in size from 60 to 400 unit buildings from five to 20 stories high. Units come in multiple configurations, have private balconies and offer a combination of independent living and care programs for residents.

Another alternative for senior living that might begin to grow in popularity is described as family-style assisted living, which is a growing niche market in upscale, high-amenity housing for older people who don’t need nursing home care, but can’t live on their own, according to a December 2007 Washington Post article. A hybrid between in-home care and assisted living, these group homes are an example of the increasing specialization in senior housing, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America, Alexandria, Va.

Trends and technology

Like any apartment building or residential unit, independent living facilities require electrical power distribution and lighting systems and also must meet codes for fire and life safety systems and emergency egress. Residents’ demands, however, for greater flexibility offered by on-site programs and dining options require systems not inherently found in residential construction, such as point-of-purchase systems, according to John Amanat, senior associate at the architectural firm of Perkins Eastman, New York.

Light fixtures and lighting design are important in independent living, according to Mike Funck, director of preconstruction for Wohlsen Construction Co., Lancaster, Pa.

“In the common areas, the greatest lighting concern is aesthetic. However, in the apartments, it’s important for electrical contractors to understand residents’ sight issues and to design and provide proper light levels to help elderly residents see better with less glare,” he said. In addition, facilities are offering more services for residents, such as high-speed Internet access, upgraded phone services, and satellite and cable services, requiring the electrical contractor to install telecommunication wiring in a residential environment.

In assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, the need for more complex systems is required.

“There are more stringent design and code requirements in these types of facilities,” Funck said, and the need increases for nurse call systems, speaker systems, staff communication systems, more complex wander guard monitoring systems to prevent residents with dementia from wandering off and, finally, CCTV systems to monitor public areas to ensure the residents’ safety.

System knowledge required by the electrical contractor in this market also includes building automation for control of HVAC systems and door and security systems; integration technology so that lighting, security and fire alarm and life safety systems can be tied together; and lighting controls and wireless technology. Other emerging trends contractors need to know about include telemedicine and wireless monitoring of residents.

“Remote monitoring of seniors’ health conditions allows them to stay in their homes longer. Manufacturers and software companies are researching ways to use technology to monitor people’s health, their patterns of behaviors, and even whether ovens are left on or doors and windows have been left open,” Amanat said.

Generally, according to Louis Anderson, associate architect at FreemanWhite Inc., Charlotte, N.C., these projects last three to seven years and have moved some distance toward obsolescence by the time they are finished. The ideal electrical contractor, Anderson believes, will have experience, familiarity with applicable codes and standards, creativity, flexibility and patience when collaborating with large teams of stakeholders with often-conflicting agendas.

“Also, it is important not to lose sight of the end-user who has lived a long life, amassed innumerable experiences and now wishes to complete the final chapter of their life with comfort and dignity,” he said.

As the cost of construction continues to rise, trade-offs often are necessary between initial cost of construction versus long-term operating and maintenance costs, according to Jim Hackman, partner at Reese Engineering Inc., State College, Pa. Typically, resident unit HVAC systems in skilled care, assisted living and independent living are controlled by stand-alone thermostats, while common area systems and central plant equipment are tied to the building automation system.

“To meet energy codes, all common area lighting is typically controlled by occupancy sensors, low-voltage lighting control systems or a combination of both,” Hackman said.

Positioning the contractor

Electrical contractors that want to be on the forefront of this burgeoning market need to familiarize themselves with it through resources, such as the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging or any of the numerous state-level organizations around the country, according to Anderson. Also, there are several general contractors around the country with a history of working within this market that could possibly provide orientation, or entry into, the senior living market.

“Contractors need to consider who they will be working for, whether it is a general contractor, the facility owner, or even the senior him or herself. They also need to understand the scale and scope of the project, which range from large, complex CCRCs to small retrofits made to an individual’s dwelling unit,” he said.

When working in the senior market, there are more criteria than the bottom line, Amanat said.

Success in this market also means understanding where it is headed in terms of facilities shifting toward a more residential feel, even in assisted living and skilled nursing care.

“Successful electrical contractors in this market require both residential and healthcare experience, expertise in technology and code requirements, and they must be able to demonstrate that the company understands how the effects of aging may influence design strategies,” Funck said.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.