Having officially been in the field for just over a year, I’d hardly call myself an expert on senior living. I would, however, confidently say I’m an insider. Aside from working in the sales department of two assisted living communities, I’ve lived and volunteered in Alzheimer’s facilities in Italy. In addition, I traveled to the Netherlands *by myself* for the sole purpose of touring and spending time at Dementia Village. Though still a rookie, I’d like to use what I’ve learned and experienced thus far to offer some advice on what to consider when exploring AL options.
- Schedule a tour. I know, I know: “Let’s catch them off guard so they can’t warn everyone we’re coming and put on a show.” While I’m all for the authenticity that comes with unexpected surprises, I think making an appointment is in this case important; you want to be sure you’re able to spend time with your tour guide and not feel rushed.
- Stay for lunch. Does free food even need an explanation? 😉 Not only are you being fed, you’re also meeting and observing current residents, dining room staff, and the general vibe in the community. Plus, mealtime is huge for residents, so you want to be sure that what they’re served is tasty, nutritious, and presentable.
- Take note of the details. Speaking of presentable, how are the residents dressed? Are they neat and well-groomed? What about the community itself – is it clean? Do the caregivers look tidy? Do they greet those they pass? & my biggest pet peeve: anyone on their phone?!?! Honestly, having to even consider moving your nonna into AL is so disheartening and stressful that I just know I would look for any excuse to rule a place out, and that’s okay. Be picky…
- …But don’t be selfish. Ugh, this one’s essential. I know you probably prefer granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and crown molding, but does your nonno care about any of that? Is that even his style? I think we can safely assume it’s not.
- Like, not even a little selfish please. Location is of course important, but please take distance into consideration within reason. Don’t choose a community based on convenience alone; if you have to travel an extra twenty minutes or pay a Parkway toll to visit your nonna at a truly good, honest place, make that sacrifice for her. Per favore, focus on what matters most…
- … & Don’t lose sight of what’s important. If you’re touring ALs in the first place, it’s obvious that there’s a reason: your loved one needs help (that or you’re broke and want the free food, in which case I totally support you and you can stop reading after tip #2). While those fancy salons and in-house theatres are awesome, remember that they’re a bonus, not a necessity. The only thing that truly matters is care. Seriously, I cannot stress that enough.
- Ask questions. Unfortunately, your two-hour tour can only offer so much insight into how a community runs. Asking questions, then, is extremely important. Do residents wear emergency pendants around their necks? What about their apartments – are there pull cords by the bed and in the bathroom? When a call button is pressed or an emergency cord pulled, what’s the average response time? Don’t just ask your guide, either; chat with residents. When you’re sitting at lunch, engage with them. See how they like the community and what, if anything, they’d change. Do they feel safe? Are they happy? **Disclaimer, nonnos and nonnas love to complain, so it won’t be all rainbows and butterflies. Pay attention to what they complain about, though; does their food take too long or are they rushed in the shower? Is the toilet paper rough or are their call bells unanswered?
- Then ask a few more. You can never ask too many questions! Or make too many observations, for that matter. Notice some caregivers out of uniform? Ask your tour guide what their deal is. Do residents have private aids? How come, and how many? While we’re at it, what’s the staffing ratio? If you’re able to make a decent connection with your sales rep and some trust has been established, ask them honestly, “Would you move your loved one here?” Gage their response and, as a general rule, go with your gut.
- Bring your loved one back. Finally, once you’ve narrowed your choices, return for a visit with your nonno himself. Let him have a say and, more importantly, try the food. B-) Don’t expect certainty or full-blown enthusiasm, because they’re unfortunately unrealistic; trust me, nobody arrives high-fiving us on move-in day. However, it’s important to include your loved one on such a huge decision, and to be sure they feel secure and their opinion valued. After all, it’s their last stop, not yours.
- Take the plunge. Your nonna’s 97 but still not ready? Your nonno broke one hip but is still kicking with the other? To reiterate, if you’re even looking into AL, there’s a reason. It is alarming how many people I’ve spoken to who had excuses to wait and whose loved one ended up seriously hurt or in a nursing home. Please, please, please have their safety and best interests at heart, even if that means making tough decisions.
*7/2016 Edit* I realize that I made no mention of $$ in the above, and while the cost of senior living can take up a post and a half on its own, I’d like to at least bring up one point: I tell every single tour that unless they’re a multi, multi millionaire, a question they should always ask is, “Does this community accept Medicaid at all?” There are many misconceptions regarding the way in which residents pay for AL, and Medicaid is an important factor to consider. Once all of your money runs out and you’re eligible, it’s not a guarantee that your facility will let you stay. Make sure you ask about the “spend-down period” if there is one, as you’ll otherwise be forced to move if and when you run out of funds. This isn’t information that’s presented without prompting, as those communities who don’t accept Medicaid of course won’t want the thought of having to move twice deter you from joining them! See, I wasn’t kidding with numbers 7 and 8.. ask as many questions as you can possibly think of!