Brookdale Senior Living is undertaking two new initiatives aimed to improve its seniors housing facilities along with the services they offer. The publicly-traded company rolled out its “Program Max” about 18 months ago. The goal is to renovate and reposition a number of communities. Brookdale plans to spend $360 million on the program.

“These aren’t just cosmetic improvements,” says Roger Thiele, vice president of marketing and product life management at Brookdale’s headquarters in Brentwood, Tenn. “We are reinventing the product to serve the next generation.”

Brookdale has 17 property renovations under way and another 80 in the pipeline. The company owns 646 seniors housing facilities.

The other initiative is the “Sweet Life,” a program to improve the services and settings at Brookdale’s skilled nursing, dementia care and rehabilitation units. The Sweet Life concept will also be adopted at many of the campuses being renovated. “The Sweet Life does everything possible to make people not think of the building as instutional,” says Theile. “It’s an attractive environment for families and residents. No one feels uncomfortable.”

The focus of the Sweet Life is a town center. Positioned at the entry to the building, it includes a streetscape with store facades. The stores include an ice cream parlor, movie theater, market and chapel. Programs are held in the town center. Residents and families can stroll along the street. Residents with memory loss who often wander can walk safely through the streetscape. “The town center is so welcoming to guests that it creates a positive atmosphere,” says Thiele.

The Brookdale programs are part of a wider industry push to make senior care facilities less like hospitals and more like homes. Customers don’t like old-style sterile nursing home environments. Instead, they seek places that offer the comforts of home.

Brookdale’s Sweet Life concept is being applied differently at various properties, depending on physical constraints. New facilities will have the streetscape. But some older buildings don’t have room for the streetscape.

New facilities will only have private suites. Older buildings are being reconfigured to include as many private suites as possible. For example, Brookdale purchased a nursing facility in Lexington, Ky., adjacent to its existing campus. Half of the rooms were made into private suites and 30 apartments were added. “We’ve found that most people want a private suite,” says Thiele.

Even though some properties won’t have the streetscape, Sweet Life programming is being introduced at Brookdale buildings. For example, warm towels are offered to residents prior to meals. Residents can select their own music while they take a Jacuzzi bath. “Small details are the key,” notes Thiele.

Two Sweet Life communities are already up and running in the Kansas City area. Sweet Life at Rosehill, an older facility, is in Shawnee, Kan. A new campus, Sweet Life at Brookdale Place in Overland Park, opened in November, 2010. The building has 100 suites of rehab and skilled nursing, 40 assisted living units, and 40 apartments for memory care residents. Occupancy in April was 97 percent, according to Kristi Cawley, vice president of field sales for Brookdale’s Plains Division. “We are really focused on the customer.”

The Sweet Life facility is adjacent to Brookdale Place, an independent living community. The campus creates a continuum of care, another Brookdale goal. “We believe there should be continuums of care where we can make that happen,” says Theile. Brookdale Place is 25 years old and was recently upgraded. The building was re-skinned. The common areas were redone. A new curb cut allows direct access to the Sweet Life facility.

All the units at Brookdale Place now have washers and dryers. The kitchens have granite countertops. Universal design elements were incorporated in the apartments too. For example, task lighting was added under the kitchen cabinets. When someone enters the bathroom, sensors automatically flip on the lights.

Other campus upgrades include wireless access, all day dining so residents can eat when they want, and a new sports pub where residents can socialize. “We are anticipating what the next generation wants,” says Thiele.