When you think of assisted living communities, what comes to mind? It might be images of large, nondescript buildings with outdated carpeting and greenish-gray walls.

Maybe you think of seniors traveling in golf carts to a clubhouse that serves variations of the same food every night. As far as activities go, perhaps you think of bingo nights or visits from the local high school’s jazz band. Overall, you’re probably haunted by the ghosts of nursing homes past.

Making the decision to have a loved one live in an assisted living facility can be emotional for all parties involved.

And people make the move to assisted living for a variety of reasons, both cognitive and physical. According to research collected by the Center for Disease Control, 40% of assisted living residents have short-term memory ailments. 28% battle depression and sleep issues, and 11% have suffered strokes.

Beyond specialized medical care, it’s natural for prospective residents and their families to feel anxiety about the quality of assisted living.

Thankfully, an increasing number of facilities are going above and beyond to ensure residents get not only the best standard care, but special amenities as well. As Rachel Reeves from ACHA/NCAL told Considerable, “Most assisted living facilities these days offer multiple activities every day. It’s about looking for the ones that speak the most to you [or your loved one].”

The horsey set

One of the most fascinating assisted living communities lies in sunny Tucson, Arizona. As its name suggests, The Hacienda at the River is modeled in traditional Southwest hacienda-style architecture. The stucco buildings and grounds landscaped with desert plants are welcoming and warm in the Arizona heat.

Some companies are stepping up to provide not just better conditions, but exceptional amenities and facilities that residents can feel genuinely excited about calling home.

But it’s not just the look of the place. When visitors arrive, they are greeted by some very special “staff members”: horses.

We spoke with David Freshwater, chairman and developer of Watermark Retirement Communities, the group that owns The Hacienda. An architect himself, he is largely responsible for the traditional architecture and the unique equestrian program.

“This was an idea that was born from the perspective that this community or this property was historically equestrian focused, from a dude ranch to a riding stable,” Freshwater said.

Then came Barbara Rector, who ran a therapeutic horse riding program for children. She helped create The Hacienda’s iconic In The Presence of Horses program, which introduces therapeutic connections between the residents and the equestrians. Horses are an integral part of the community, and often walk right up to residents’ windows to say hello.

About 50% of Hacienda residents have dementia and other cognitive issues, and others are affected by mobility challenges that make it hard to visit the horses. For those who can’t venture far from their rooms, Rector’s team walk the horses through the courtyard so residents can interact with them.

And for some residents with dementia, the presence of animal companions can do wonders.

“We had a gentleman who was a general in the Army and was in charge of the cavalry program” at the Sierra Vista (Arizona) army base, Freshwater recalled. “Unfortunately, he developed dementia and came to our community. The first night that he was there was very difficult. He was agitated, he was unhappy, he wanted to go home.

“It just so happened the next was one of the days that the horses came to visit and he was sitting on the porch after breakfast. The horses were just grazing. [One of the horses] looked up and saw the general and the general, again, wasn’t really communicating or anything at this stage of his life.

“The horse just walked straight over to him. I’ve never seen anything like it, so the handler just followed the horse and the horse went to about a foot away from the general’s face and looked down at the general. After about five minutes, the general reached up and started stroking the muzzle of the horse, and they stayed in this embrace for about 20 minutes. Then, the horse just turned around and left. From that point forward, the general spoke of going to the patio to see the horses every day.”

Besides the magical equestrian moments, The Hacienda at the River offers a hands-on gardening program in which residents plant and harvest food that’s used directly in the facility’s kitchen. Freshwater said the goal is a holistic, healing assisted living experience.

In that spirit, Watermark Retirement Communities, the parent company behind The Hacienda at the River, is also opening The Hacienda at the Canyon this summer, a retirement community for those who don’t need assisted living but are interested in a grounded, natural way to spend their later years.

Preschool program

The Golden Oaks Village in Stillwater, Oklahoma, is one assisted living facility that has a Montessori-style intergenerational preschool in conjunction with their assisted living facility.

Through Intergenerational Learning Centers such as Golden Oaks, children can learn more about aging, empathy, and patience, and quell fears they might have about older or infirm people.

Expressions through art

If you and your loved ones can’t relocate to Arizona for an equestrian experience, there are other helpful assisted living approaches to look for. Art therapy programs are one valuable resource, especially when it comes to memory care

Commonwealth Senior Living provides memory care for a host of assisted living facilities around Virginia. Director Jeffrey S. Gruber created the art therapy program Expressions to help residents express themselves.

In each Expressions session, residents work with an art therapist one-on-one and are presented with objects that might trigger past memories, or emotionally resonate with them and inspire the desire to create art, talk about their feelings, or a combination of both.

Residents with and without cognitive disorders can benefit from art therapy, but Expressions takes special care to help those who might experience trouble or frustration communicating verbally.

“Roadblocks to verbal communication laid by dementia are bypassed through the artistic process, and individuals can express themselves through the art. Concentration and attention improves, and patients are often easier to care for even when the therapy is over,” Dr. Daniel C. Potts, founder of the dementia care organization Cognitive Dynamics, told Alzheimers.net.