John Walker has spent the bulk of his personal career in the orbit of Sunrise Senior Living, one of the largest senior living providers in the United States, with communities in Canada and the UK. The development design director for the past five-and-a-half-years has operated both inside the company and as an outside consultant. Walker’s first-ever project while working for BeeryRio Architects was hand drafting a window detail for Sunrise who, at the time, was rolling out a relatively new idea to its American audience: assisted living.
Walker has more skin in the game than most, as he has seen firsthand the care and consideration Sunrise offers its residents, one of whom was his late grandmother. It’s offered the design director a chance to see virtually every resident accommodation himself and bring those lessons to every new design he heads.
Walker’s journey to Sunrise started just across the yard at his grandfather’s house. “One of my earliest memories was sitting at his kitchen table and watching him work,” Walker remembers. “He was a skilled architect, and it was so fascinating to me that he could take lines, put them on a piece of paper, and suddenly it became a cityscape.” Walker’s grandfather would even let him draw in doors and windows on his renderings. “From a very young age, there was something about architecture that excited me when you were watching something come from nothing,” the design director adds.
Although Walker wouldn’t work for Sunrise in-house until 2011, he’d spend the entirety of the 1990s and a good chunk of the 2000s working in some capacity for the organization. His work included collaboration with architects from the US, UK, Germany, and Canada. As the company continued to branch out, Walker helped East Coast meet West, introducing local California architects to the Sunrise school of design.
Construction management became more and more of an interest point for the architect, and he eventually walked away from his architectural position without any idea of what was next. “When Sunrise UK heard that I had quit, they asked me and my family to move to England to support their expansion,” Walker remembers. It was now in a consultant role, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. Walker was granted highly skilled migrant status after a difficult visa process. The Walker family lived in the UK for five years (the entire family now has dual citizenship) and after moving back, Walker continued a transatlantic commute for two more. Upon his full-time return to the States, Walker came in-house at Sunrise US.
The Most Personal of Investment
“Before my grandmother moved into a Sunrise community, my knowledge was just guided by my colleagues, my mentors, and Sunrise founder Paul Klaassen,” Walker says. “I had no personal experience with actually providing care. Obviously, I tried hard to learn and remember all of the considerations that directed the designs, but I couldn’t provide any direct knowledge to any of my decisions.”
Following an accident, Walker’s grandmother was placed on medications with side effects that included memory loss, and so she was moved into a Reminiscence neighborhood at Sunrise—which is what the provider calls “memory care.” As her condition improved, she moved to specialized assisted living for those with less significant memory issues and ultimately moved back into the general assisted living population.
“I was able to see her in every part of the building,” Walker says. “Visiting her, I would get to see other residents as well and how the staff interacted with those residents. I have been able to encounter and reflect on virtually every type of living situation we provide. I have personally seen how our residents interact within our spaces.”
One of the critical differentiators for the Sunrise model, and one that Walker has again seen firsthand, is the difference between its assisted living communities and a traditional nursing home. “Before my grandmother came to Sunrise, she was first moved into a nursing home,” Walker explains. “American nursing homes are based on a medical model with hard surfaces, fluorescent lighting down the corridor, and many of the beeps and sounds found in a hospital.”
Walker says it was frankly uncomfortable to see his grandmother in that kind of situation. “Paul Klaassen knew from his experience and family in Holland that care could be given in a residential setting that was more dignified,” the design director explains. “When you look at the Sunrise model, my grandmother had her space, her room, and her furniture.” Carpets and fine dining and other small touches made his grandmother’s last five years as comfortable as he could have hoped for her.
With Just a Piece of Paper
There is still something from Walker’s youth that stays with him in his work. When he speaks about the litany of projects he headed in the UK, he says it in a way that harkens back to watching his grandfather work at the kitchen table. “Of the 27 communities that are in the UK, I would say that I was heavily involved in 24, and they didn’t exist until I put them on a piece of paper, which is pretty cool.”
When he isn’t on the golf course or fishing with his dog, it seems like Walker has found a way to continue to make something out of nothing, helping give those who have lived full lives yet another sunrise.