Step 4: Visit prospective facilities

Internet and phone research can only get you so far. To know whether a facility is right for your loved one, you need to visit it. Try to inspect at least three. "You have to get in there and look at it, walk around, meet the residents, have a meal," A Place for Mom's Kell says. Fodrini-Johnson recommends making an appointment to tour the residences during the week and speak with administrators. Then you should plan to make an impromptu visit to each on a weekend to see how the facility operates when the administrator isn't there.

What to look for:

  • Pay attention to overall cleanliness. Does it meet your expectations of what "clean" should be?
  • Follow your nose. Are there strong, offensive odors in common areas or emanating from residents' rooms?
  • Watch the residents. Make sure they are in common areas and are active. If not, ask where they are and what they're doing.
  • Watch employees. Do they smile and say hello? Do they look like they enjoy their jobs? How do they get residents to participate in activities -- by command or social invitation? Are nurses behind their stations, or are they engaged with residents (which is where they should be)?
  • Observe an activity. The residence should have a list of daily programs posted. Make sure those programs are actually occurring.
  • Look at the physical setup. It should look like a residence, not a hospital. That means it should allow residents to bring their own furniture or other belongings to make their rooms or apartments feel more like home. And make sure that the property is secure so that residents can't wander off. If it's a memory-care facility, the layout should be simple -- such as a single hallway that encircles a common area -- so that residents don't get confused or lost.
  • Look for life. Fish tanks, caged birds, potted plants or a garden can give residents a reason to smile.

What to ask:

  • Can my loved one's needs be met? Be explicit about what the person requires. Don't hold anything back.
  • What is the basic monthly cost? What are the added costs if a family member needs extra help with medications or incontinence? There are often several levels of care, and even little things have additional costs.
  • Is there a community fee (a one-time payment that covers the administrative cost of moving someone into the facility and refurbishing a room for that person)? If so, is it refundable if your loved one doesn't want to stay?
  • What kinds of activities are provided?
  • Are religious services held at the facility, or are residents taken to services off-site?
  • What is the ratio of caregivers to residents? It should be no less than 1 to 15 for assisted living and 1 to 8 for memory care.
  • What conditions would cause a resident to need to move to another level of care?
  • Does a doctor make regular visits to the residence?
  • Specific to Alzheimer's and dementia, what sort of training does staff receive for dementia?
  • Is the facility licensed to provide dementia care, and is there a special unit for people with dementia?
  • Is there a daily routine for people with dementia? (The answer should be yes.)
  • Finally, ask residents if they like living there, and ask any of their friends or family who might be visiting what they think about the facility. Most important, trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.

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