How To Find the Right Living Place For Your Parents
Choosing a retirement community for an elderly parent is never an easy task. When children look for a home for their senior parents, they aren’t just trying to find them another place to live. A good senior living community gives the children peace of mind, and it gives the parents somewhere they can live out their golden years with joy. For many people, finding a new home for their senior parent is a way to repay their parent for taking care of them and supporting them throughout their life. Others are trying to ensure that a parent with a specific health condition lives somewhere that provides the best possible medical care.
Whatever the reason and whatever the level of care that will be necessary for the parent, there are countless factors to consider before selecting a community that makes a good fit. This guide covers many of those considerations and how to navigate them together with parents to find a home that will make for a happy and healthy life.
What Senior Living Community Options Are Available?
It is important to remember that there are many different types of retirement communities available to senior parents. Unfortunately, Medicare does not cover most senior living communities, although certain types of private insurance can cover them. Each kind of community caters to different preferences and needs parents may have when leaving their home. Some of the options available to older parents can include:
- Independent Living Communities. These are residences in a senior living community for people that require little to no assistance. They have the benefit of integrating a parent whose assistance needs might develop over time into a community early, allowing them to already have a happy social life and a familiar environment if they end up requiring a more comprehensive care facility. Most of these residences are situated in a community that offers more advanced care, allowing for an easier move – if necessary – later in the resident’s life. Although the price of independent living residences can vary quite a bit based on location, amenities, unit size, and other variables, typically they average between $2000 and $4000 per month. They are usually paid for privately out of pocket, but some may allow insurance or other non-private payment options.
- Assisted Living Communities. For senior parents that require a little more assistance or supervision, assisted living facilities can be a good option. These are usually more expensive than independent living communities due to the cost of staff that provide assistance, but like independent living, the price is quite variable. They average around $4000 a month nationally, but the cost can be higher based on the level of assistance your elderly parent needs. Additional services can include help with managing medication, help dressing or bathing, blood sugar checks, regular nurse check-ins, and many others. These are also typically privately paid, but long-term care insurance can help cover a lot of the costs.
- Skilled Nursing Facilities. For senior parents that need full assistance and 24/7 care, this option ranges from a national average of $7650 for a semi-private room (which may or may not have a closable door) to $8700 for a more private unit. Fortunately, Medicare does cover a net total of 100 calendar days of care in a Medicare-certified skilled nursing facility. However, a daily copay that the patient or their family must cover is added to the base cost if certain criteria (such as a recent stay in the hospital) get met.
- Memory Care Facilities. These are communities for parents that have dementia or other serious memory or cognitive disorders. One of the most dangerous symptoms of dementia is a tendency to wander out of the home while confused, which can be a major problem if there are hazards outside such as extreme weather. They are designed with the risks of memory disorders in mind, providing locked, safe environments that allow residents to live in a structured and secure environment. Memory care facilities typically cost $1000 to $4000 more per month than the base price of assisted living facilities in the area. Like assisted living communities, memory care facilities can be partially paid for by long-term care insurance policies.
Whatever option seems right at first, it is a good idea to have back-up plans based on changes in health or opinion. Many elderly parents move multiple times after leaving their home, staying in communities that fit best with their fluctuating needs and desires. The best option is usually whatever allows the parent the most independence possible, while still planning for any potential changes that might necessitate a move. Designating financial power-of-attorney to a trust friend or family member as early as reasonable is a good idea, since that allows the parent to have their affairs managed if their health status changes suddenly. Designating another trusted individual (who understands their medical needs, values and wishes) as their healthcare power-of-attorney is similarly a wise choice. But when a decision has to be made hastily, for instance after an accident, death, or unexpected hospital stay, things can change very quickly.
“There were four different assisted-living apartments; two independent-living communities; countless hospital stays that lasted a week or longer; probably a dozen stints in rehab; one heartbreaking week in a hospice; and an even more harrowing few months, during COVID lockdown, in memory care,” writes Firstly’s Jenna Gabrial Gallagher in a write-up of her experience helping her parents navigate senior living communities. “Some of the moves were their choice, such as when they decamped without telling us from their AL facility (“Everyone there is so…old!”) to a much hipper independent living community down the street. Other moves were out of medical necessity: they were in the original AL because my mom had had a debilitating toxic reaction to a combination of medications she’d been taking for her multiple myeloma. After she recovered, they couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
Ultimately though, the choice is between the parent and the family involved. It is important to balance the wishes of the parent with the reality of their needs, and to try to work out a solution that everyone agrees makes them as comfortable, healthy, and happy as possible.
Before You Tour
Regardless of the type of senior living community or the needs of the older parent that will be living in the community, the most important part of the process of selecting a home for the parent is touring the community in question. But before that, there are a number of crucial things to consider when thinking about touring a senior living community for a parent that may be living there in the near future. This information can often be discovered on the community’s website, in marketing pamphlets, on the phone with staff. If all else fails, you can ask during a tour, but if possible you should get answers to most of these questions before taking the time to visit in person:
How Far Away is the Community?
Many people want to be close to their parents so that they can visit as often as they can. If that is an important factor in the decision, the distance question is a critical piece of the tour. Don’t just think of the distance measured as the bird flies, also take careful note of how long it takes to drive there. For senior parents that do not own a car or drive, consider the public transportation and other transport options available to them. Will they be able to get to grocery stores and shopping centers, if necessary? How about places of worship? If they have health conditions that might require urgent medical attention from physicians that are not available on site, how far away is the hospital? How far are other medical centers, clinics, or specialists they might be visiting on a regular basis? How far away are libraries, parks, and other amenities they may want to visit? Will they be able to visit other friends and family from their community? Living near children is also a difficult choice with many pros and cons.
“I’ve seen many retirees make snap decisions about where they’ll live and regret it,” said Jill Schlesinger, CBS business analyst and author of The Dumb Things Smart People Do With Their Money, in a Forbes article on the topic. “They thought it would be wonderful to be closer to their kids and grandkids. What could go wrong? But this kind of a move can be dangerous for retirees, and not just because of the financial components.”
Schlesinger added that some retired parents found that moving to be closer to family wasn’t worth leaving behind friends or other connections where they lived before. Other senior parents find that they feel like they are obligated to visit their family more than they initially wanted to, or that their family feels obligated to do the same with them. There are also countless financial considerations to make.
What Type of Care Does the Community Offer?
Another feature that can make or break the fit of a senior living community for most people is the care they can offer their aging parents. The services available can have a massive impact on a parent’s health and quality of life. Make sure to ask not only about any care options that are necessary today, but the care services that might reasonably be needed in the future. If possible, it is a good idea to avoid having to move again if new or different care needs develop down the line. Ask about the quality of the care and the credentials and training of the staff providing it. You should also ask about different packages or level of care offered, what they include, and what the price of each level is.
What Medical Services Are Provided?
Beyond care generally, it is also wise to inquire about the medical support the community can give your parent. Like more broad care services, it is consider how well the services provided by the community fit with both the medical needs of your parent today and needs that might develop in the future. It can provide a lot of extra peace of mind to know that good medical care will be available should your parent need them, even if they aren’t necessary today. Some details to ask about might include access to doctors and other medical professionals on site, medication administration services, pharmacy services, physical therapy options, and vitals monitoring.
What Are the Units Like?
Most senior living communities have a variety of housing options in many different layouts, sizes, locations, and bedroom and bathroom combinations. These can include independent living apartments with full kitchens, or smaller suites with walk-in kitchenettes. Bathrooms might include disability accommodations or come as default only and require extra fees for installation of those accommodations.
Consider what floor plan will make your parent the happiest and talk it over with them. Try to get them to envision where they might put their possessions so they can see what living there would be like. Ask the staff to provide a floor plan with measurements so you can estimate how furniture might fit. Think about how any health conditions might affect your parent navigating the apartment – for instance, could a wheelchair user reach shelves or appliances? Within the unit, consider different safety features and check whether or not they work properly, such as fire alarms, call bells, sprinklers, and smoke alarms. Your parent should feel safe and secure in their new home, and you should feel comfortable putting them somewhere you do not have to worry about them.
Some of the less crucial options are still important to think over since they may or may not suit your parent’s preferences. This includes things like individually controlled heating and air conditioning, the absence or presence of a full kitchen, whether there is a fully private bathroom, storage options, and the decision between a unite with one or multiple rooms. Don’t forget to ask about TV, phone, and internet access options and their price.
What Amenities Does the Community Offer?
As you tour through a senior living community, it is helpful to ask about what amenities and suite options can be accessed by residents. Considering the individual unit is important, of course, but its just one part of the larger retirement community and all of its various amenity spaces and options as part of your parent’s possible new home. When it comes to the amenities in the community and its shared spaces, think about what your parent likes to do and what they are expecting from this new chapter in their life. Senior living communities often have a common dining area, for example. Could there be a spot that could be reserved for birthday parties or larger family gatherings?
Other amenities and common areas to ask about include:
- Library or reading room
- Fitness center
- Café, restaurant, or market
- Chapel or other places of worship
- Movie theater or stage performance area (for concerts and plays)
- Activity spaces (e.g. art studio or dance hall)
- Open community kitchen
- Beauty salon or barber shop
- Garden, patio, or green space
What Are the Recreation Options?
Many people choose senior living residences for a sense of camaraderie, community and the opportunities to meet and live alongside people their age who lead similar lives. Ask about what activities are available to the residents and if they are able to provide any sort of input. Your parent might be interested in volunteering or helping create a new feature of the community. These are opportunities that can really set a community apart and make it a true community, as opposed to just a place to live. Some senior living communities even offer transportation for local events, shopping, excursions, musical and theatrical performances, and other opportunities to get out, so these are worth inquiring about.
How to Tour a Senior Living Community
Once you think a senior living community has potential to be a good new home for your aging parent, it is time to schedule a tour. This can usually be done by calling the community, emailing them, or going to their website and filling out a form. Some communities even allow potential residents and their families to walk in and get a tour on the same day. Regardless, once the day of the tour comes and you walk through the doors of the building, there are some specific details to watch out for that could be the difference between your parent having a happy home and spending thousands of dollars on a community that isn’t worth the cost. Keep an eye out for the following:
Activities and Community Engagement: Join In
If it is possible, it is always a great idea to try scheduling a at the same time as a community event or group activity. When scheduling the tour, ask the staff member if you can drop in on one of the activities – or even participate with your parent. Take note of how many people are there – is it well attended? Does the staff support the participants and appear to be having a good time with the activity as well? Have a peek at the community calendar of events. Are they things that your parent might be interested in? Is there some variety to them that allows residents to broaden their horizons? Are there opportunities to get outside of the community on outings? And if applicable, never forget to check if the community holds the relevant religious services.
Staff Friendliness: Ask Around
The demeanor, attitude, and overall friendliness of the staff working at a senior living community are a critical factor in the quality of the community. Having confidence in the staff is vital, so take some time to observe multiple staff members interacting with the community’s residents. Do they listen closely to the needs and concerns of the residents and look them in the eye? Does the staff at the community treat residents with dignity, respect and a smile? Also, do what you can to get an understanding of the staffing structure and the positions involved. More specialized roles and more staff usually translates to better care for your elderly parent, but make the staff is actually working to help the residents. Of course, this is just a rule of thumb, and there are exceptions. Specialized roles like “assistance pool maintenance engineer” are likely increasing the price of residency more than they’re increasing the quality of life for the residents? Make sure you get an introduction to the community’s management team, so you can ask how many staff are directly involved with resident service. Meeting the management team will also help get a picture of the community’s goals and values.
It is also a good idea to speak with residents away from any staff members and ask them how the treatment from staff is. Are they polite and respectful to the residents? Do they do their jobs diligently? Are they ever rude or negligent in any way? Make sure to ask how the community handles complaints about staff from residents and their families. Good employment screening can help reduce the number of bad staff members that end up working at a senior living community, but it is impossible to stop a few from slipping through the cracks – even at the best communities. While complaints about grave misconduct like elder abuse or theft from residents are the responsibility of law enforcement, less serious and more common problems with staff conduct are usually the responsibility of the community. If they have a human resources department or staff manager, you should ask them about how they handle staff complaints, but you should also take a moment to ask residents in private so you don’t just get the company line.
Outdoor Areas: Take a Walk
Having somewhere to enjoy a sunny day outside is a huge benefit for any senior living community. These areas can be a wonderful place for active older folks to take an afternoon walk, do yoga or stretching exercises, soak up sunlight, socialize with other residents, or simply relax with a morning coffee and read the paper while getting some fresh air.
Outdoor areas and green spaces in and around senior living facilities encourage activities with a plethora of health benefits. A 2011 study published by the British Medical Association investigated nearly 28,000 people from 40 to 79 years old over a period of 13 years. The study found that those who went on walks for an hour a day or more had a significantly longer life expectancy. But even short walks – especially when walking at a brisk pace – can also add years to the clock, according to a similar study of more than 400,000 people in Taiwan. Even moderate intensity (slow or medium pace) walks can add an average of three years to someone’s lifespan.
“15 minutes a day or 90 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise might be of benefit, even for individuals at risk of cardiovascular disease,” the study authors wrote. “The benefits were applicable to all age groups and both sexes, and to those with cardiovascular disease risks. Individuals who were inactive had a 17 percent increased risk of mortality compared with individuals [who exercised moderately].”
Take a walk with your senior parent through any green areas, gardens, or grounds that the community features. Ask if there are any regular activities or organized group exercises that other residents participate outdoors. Even for older adults who may have health conditions that limit their capacity for traditional exercise, there are still ways that your older parent can take advantage of outdoor spaces to benefit their health. If your parent enjoys gardening, many senior living communities sport community gardens that grow fresh fruits and vegetables. While on the tour of the community, ask the tour guide if it is possible for residents to volunteer to help work in it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular moderate exercise – including gardening – each week can reduce the risk for “obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, depression, colon cancer and premature death,” among other health problems. The CDC has also identified other health benefits to gardens too, so the fruits and vegetables certainly don’t hurt.
Community Meals: Have a Bite
Many people take decent food for granted, but this a luxury not afforded to many older adults living in low-end senior living communities. As such, it is important to ask the tour guide about what sort of entree choices are available to the community’s residents and inquire about dining hours and meal options. If possible, see if you can have a look at the area the food is prepared in and make sure it is clean and well organized – you do not want your parent eating food made in the Cockroach Café. More importantly, most senior living communities will let you schedule a tour during dining hours and have a meal at the community’s dining facilities. This is a wise move not only because it is a great way to sample the cuisine, but also because it also opens up the chance to meet some of the residents. You can discuss what happens if a resident can’t make it to the dining room for a meal and how they might be able to get food if that happens. Malnutrition is a serious issue in older adults, but good food can help prevent that.
“My research shows dissatisfaction with the food service significantly influences how much and what residents eat, and therefore contributes to the risk of malnutrition,” wrote nutrition and health expert Dr. Cherie Hugo of Australia’s Bond University in an op-ed on the issue. “And aged care residents are unlikely to voice their opinions – they either won’t or can’t speak out.”
Because of this, it is important to prevent the issue before it happens and choose a community that has good food.
Cleanliness and Upkeep: Follow Your Nose
Nobody wants to live in rat’s nest, and unfortunately many senior living communities are poorly maintained and underfunded. Look beyond the furnishings and take a moment to get a closer inspection of the baseboards, corners, and windows. Ask your tour guide how frequently housekeeping is available for your parent’s unit. Also ask about the specifics on maintenance and repair requests and the estimated response times once a request for a repair has been submitted. Other simple daily chores like laundry can work differently in a communal setting, so ask about those too and have a look at the laundry facilities. Using the laundry example, make sure to get a good understanding of the cost of the laundry machines and how busy the laundry room gets.
There are some major red flags to look out for here, too. Noticeable odors in the building can demonstrate a deeper issue with lack of cleanliness, or they could just be a temporary problem. If there are smells limited in one area you visit on the tour, that most likely indicates a single and limited recent problem. However, odors pervading the entire building most likely indicate a broader systemic dysfunction. Don’t be afraid to ask the manager what they think might be causing the smell or any other issue you run into during your tour.
Safety and Security: Test It Out
Security and safety features are a vital to the health and well-being of elderly parents, as well as their peace of mind (and that of their family). It helps everyone sleep a little better at night to know that the community is taking the safety of their residents seriously, so make sure that this is the case for the community you are touring when you go to check out the location. For instance, check out the bathrooms. See how accessible they are and whether or not they have grab bars in optimal spots throughout the bathroom. Give them a nice hard pull to make sure they are sturdy and screwed in to the wall properly.
Ask the tour guide how the residents can contact staff if they have an emergency in their unit. Is there a call button or a similar communication device (or devices) that they can use if something goes awry? Ask the guide about any other safety and security features that are available in the living area and around the rest of the community. Check to see how you can find out about staff schedules. This can help to determine who is on location at different times to help residents. Be especially sure to ask about whether or not there are registered nurses on site. Are the senior living community’s staffing patterns different at night, on weekends, or during the holidays? How do they help with or manage the residents’ medication schedules? Always ask specific questions that are relevant to any medical needs your senior parent might have.
Personal Care: Keeping It Clean
While going on a tour of potential senior living community locations, it is also important to ask plenty of questions about the personal care assistance the community offers. If it is something your parent needs – or may reasonably need in the foreseeable future – discuss bathing options. A good way to determine how well residents are cared for is to simply observe the residents in the facility closely when you see them, especially if you are touring somewhere that gives extra service to the residents such as an assisted living community, a skilled nursing facility, or a memory care facility. Are the residents clean, closely shaven, and sporting well-groomed nails and hair? One thing to take into consideration while visiting is the activities the residents are involved in and weather. Are their clothes well-suited for the activities they are doing? Are the residents dressed appropriately for the weather?
Ask Other Residents About Their Experience
Before or after the official tour from the senior living community staff, take a moment to pull a resident or two aside and ask them how they feel about living in the community. Do they enjoy living there? Would they choose this community again? What amenities or services do they use? What complaints do they have, or what would they change? What are their favorite parts of living there? What is the community like – is it tight-knit, or do people keep to themselves? Are there any maintenance issues or pest problems?
These basic questions, and many others, can give valuable insight that you might not otherwise get from the well-rehearsed official tour, which is typically more focused on convincing potential residents to move in than giving an unbiased portrayal of the community’s good and bad aspects. Online reviews can also be helpful, but they do come with some limitations.
“Don’t give the opinions of reviewers too much weight,” said Human Good’s Meredith Landry in an article on the subject. “People who review generally have strong opinions, they’re either extremely enthusiastic or very disparaging.”
Landry recommends beginning the search online, but only using the reviews to gather questions and cross off communities that have an overwhelmingly bad rating from many independent reviewers. Once on the tour, speak privately with residents whenever you can, making sure to also “talk to the people in charge of health and wellness, activities and dining.”
“Get offline and visit,” Landry added. “Depending on your parent’s health, bring them along for a second visit once you’ve vetted the community and asked the big questions—some of which you may draw from reviews.”
Opt For Experience
Wherever you are in the search and touring process, finding an established and time-tested community is a good place to start. For nearly a century, St. Anne’s Retirement Community has offered senior adults a variety of living options to fit their needs. Offering everything from independent living to full-time memory care, starting your search with St. Anne’s may be the first step toward a happy future for your elderly parent. Contact us today to learn more or schedule a tour.