Exploring Assisted Living



Maria Leonardo


Now, think about that exponentially:  What if you’re in your 70s or 80s and know that things will not be the same, going forward. You’ve lived with a spouse in your home for a good part of your life, raised a family and worked hard to keep that home.  But you also know that a house is a lot to tend to, especially as you age.  It may be time to live in a different setting that fosters independence, while actually giving you more freedom.

For many of us, we’re talking about our parents’ and eventually, of course, us. Moving will always be stressful, but if we, as a society, start believing that we’re  more than the things we own, we can start looking at life in a whole new way.  Why do we need that big home, anyway? Shouldn’t we be entitled to pursue a higher standard of living?

Certainly, cost is always a factor. But if we’re willing to send our children to colleges that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, why can’t we find a way for  our older adults spend their later years in communities that enrich their lives, not just house them?

Other societies do it. They embrace their mothers, fathers, grand- and great-grandparents.  Why can’t America embrace a cultural movement to make our health-care facilities and communities something to emulate’to look forward to as we grow older. Think of a college lifestyle’dorm living with amenities’fit for elders who deserve such a opportunity.

During my 21 years in the health-care field, I’ve seen many older adults who’ve been revitalized after moving to an assisted living community.  Assisted living can bridge the gap between aging in place’watching TV and getting occasional visits from loved ones’and starting a new phase of life, exploring new relationships and being engaged in activities suited to our individual needs.

So if you’re considering assisted living as an option for your loved ones, talk openly with them about their goals. Many of us think we know our parents, but we often live far away and haven’t observed their social behavior in recent years. Before you go, prepare a checklist of what is important to Mom or Dad. Discuss their recent social relationships and what interests they’d like to pursue. Remind them that they will be around people their own age and that there are possibilities of new friendships’a chance to experience new things, whatever their abilities.

Then check out the “campus life” of  prospective communities.  Visit as a family.  Initially, adult children may want to visit several facilities by themselves to ask basic questions and obtain financial information.  But after narrowing down the choices, it’s essential for your parents to be involved in the process; they’re the ones who will be living there.

Assisted living facilities will either offer a social or a medical model.  In the medical model scenario, an adjoining nursing or sub-acute or rehab center is available if a person needs more medical assistance. Some assisted living facilities have more residents who are wheelchair-users, but most of those people have to be able to get out of their wheelchair with relatively little help.

Different licenses will tell you what services a community can offer and the level of abilities of its residents.  Standards and regulations are monitored by state organizations.  No matter what state you live in, the Internet or local hospitals will have guides that can give you a listing of all health-care centers.

These days, we’re also all more aware of the “d” and “A” words’dementia and Alzheimer’s’affecting our parents. Assisted living may still be an option, but these situations require special care, so work closely with professionals to make sure a community can meet your loved ones’ needs.

To gauge the overall social environment, visit at different times, including evenings and weekends, say, a Sunday at 4 or 5:00 p.m. Be sure to schedule one of your visits during a mealtime. Inquire about particular activities that foster socialization among the residents and encourage them to lead groups or volunteer.  Walk into common areas and ask residents what they like about the facility.  Delve further. Ask a few residents how they’re informed about activities. And if they attend various activities, do they get to know others who join in? 

Staff members will be quick to give you their calendar’a laundry list  of recreational activities.  Find out what specific types of exercise classes the recreation program offers, how many people attend, and what percentage of residents join in.  Ask the recreation director or other directors what is the goal of these programs. There is more to age-appropriate programming than having a good time and being around others.  Does the community offer a bus for residents to go out to cultural events, not just shopping at the local dollar store?  Ask the staff whether they can identify residents who have interests similar to your parent’potential friends to help familiarize them with the facility.  Don’t hesitate to ask specific and pointed questions.

Besides talking to the recreation staff, take time to chat with others’a nursing assistant, an aide, a front desk receptionist. Ask them what are the more popular activities for residents’not just bingo.  And observe a group activity in progress: How does the staff engage people to participate, whether they’re involved in a physical activity,  group discussion or word game?

Ultimately, considering assisted living as a housing option is not just about providing a safe space and health care. It’s also about making choices for the best possible life for your parents: A place that embraces who they are by giving them a chance to nurture new relationships even as they age, being fulfilled with rewarding experiences’every day.

Maria Leonardo has worked in the long-term health care field as a recreation director in nursing homes, adult day centers and assisted living communities.  An independent, nationally board-certified consultant and a quality-of-life advocate for all seniors, Maria is also a freelance writer who has written for national publications about recreation and activities.  Contact: moleo1362@cs.com.