What to Look For When You Visit Assisted Living Facilities
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Of all the steps you can take in looking into assisted-living facilities for long term care, the most important is your visit. Actually, your visits, because you should go more than once, both on planned visits and on unannounced drop-ins.
An unplanned mealtime visit can give you essential information, not just about the food but also about the atmosphere in the dining room. What you see, hear, taste, and smell can tell you more about how the facility actually runs than a whole folder of brochures, lists, and websites. Above all, talk to the residents. If the management discourages this, it's a bad sign.
Ask as many questions as you can think of. But also trust your instincts. Is this a place you can see yourself (or your parent) living? Do you get a good feeling from the residents and the staff? Don't ignore small warning signs that may alert you to bigger problems. And don't be rushed into a quick decision.
The following sections walk you through what to look for when visiting an assisted-living facility, both in the common areas and in the individual residential units, as well as noting how a continuing-care concept works.
Make notes about the common areas
The staff member who takes you on a tour will be sure to point out the highlights of the furnishings, the dining room, the grounds (assuming it's not in the middle of a city), and all the available amenities. These things are important, but also take a close look around the public areas to find the answers to the following questions:
Are they clean and litter-free?
Are the bathrooms clean and well stocked?
Do the walls look freshly painted?
Is there good natural light?
Is the temperature comfortable?
Are there comfortable seats for residents and visitors?
Are all the areas accessible for people with mobility problems?
Are there elevators?
Do you see residents with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs? If not, you may assume that none of the residents need this equipment, but it may be that people with disabilities stay in their rooms and don't feel welcome in the public areas.
Are exits clearly marked?
Can you eat when you want or are meal times set?
Is there an easy give-and-take between staff and residents?
Do you feel welcome as a visitor?
If you or your parent is used to ethnic foods or has religious restrictions about foods, can the facility provide appropriate meals?
Check out the residential units
You should also visit a typical apartment or unit. Make sure you see more than the model apartment, which may have special amenities that are not always part of the basic package.
The residential unit is where you or your parent will spend a lot of time, so you want to be sure that it is big enough and can accommodate the personal items you will want to bring. Also find out the answers to these questions:
Is there a 24-hour emergency call system that is easy to use?
Is there space in the bathroom for someone to assist with bathing?
Is the kitchen (if there is one) well laid out and easy to use?
If there is no kitchen, is there a place to keep food?
Are the telephone and television easy to operate?
AARP has a good summary checklist of questions to ask when you visit and spaces to note the answers and your reactions. A nice feature is that the checklist allows you to enter comments about more than one visit.
Investigate continuing care
Assisted-living facilities may be stand-alone sites or be affiliated with a hospital or nursing home or integrated healthcare system. Many assisted-living facilities are part of a continuum of care that starts with independent living and moves through assisted living to nursing-home care, called a continuing-care retirement community, or CCRC.
The CCRC promise of never having to leave to go to a separate nursing home temporarily (for a minor illness or accident) or permanently may seem like an attractive option. However, many people fail to investigate the nursing-home level of care as extensively as they do the entry level of independent or assisted living.
The management might not be as eager to show you the nursing-home setting as the dining room or activity center, but ask to see it anyway. One thing to observe: Are there visitors from the assisted-living section? Sometimes people moved to the nursing home become isolated from their friends still in assisted living.