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How, and why, to find the right senior living place for Mom and/or Dad before there is a crisis

by David A. Slomovic, Sunnycrest Senior Living

Many adult "children" of elderly parents struggle with the challenge of how to deal with a senior parent, or with parents, that should no longer live alone. It is a complex issue that touches on the very nature of the role reversal that occurs as parents age and once "routine" matters become difficult, and sometimes even dangerous. Usually the adult children avoid the issue like the plague and wait until there is a fall or some kind of crisis. This is because moving a parent is both an uncomfortable topic and one that requires time for education and research when there is little time or appetite for either.

Many people think that their parent is going to be happier staying put right where they are, living in a large home they have occupied for 30 years. So here is the shocker. Most people actually live much better lives in senior living than they do staying in the old home. The reasons are care and socialization. All too often the senior living "at home" is living alone with the phone and TV as their main connections to the world. They wake up alone, eat alone, sit alone, watch TV, and wait for you to call or come visit. Days are long and lack stimulation. It is neither fulfilling nor healthy.

If that seems depressing, consider it from their perspective. Their whole life they were working and active and nurturing others. Now they are not working, inactive, and often alone. They often have become isolated, dealing with declining health, and dealing with daily medications that are confusing. Friends and family may be ill or have passed, and there are issues with maintaining the house. We will not even mention them driving the car that you are becoming terrified of. It should come as no surprise that in some cases medical issues, actual or simply feared, become the focus of their lives.

But it does not have to be like that. In an Assisted Living facility such as my Sunnycrest Senior Living located in Fullerton in Orange County California, residents are surrounded by others, and there is 24-hour staffing at all times. As is typical of such communities, there are month-to-month leases of private 1 or 2 bedroom or private studio apartments. Apartments in assisted living generally come with emergency pull-cords, weekly housekeeping, individual a/c, and cable. They have restaurant-style service for three healthy meals served daily in a dining room filled with other people where they interact to the degree they choose to.

Most retirement communities have "Assisted Living" services available with everything from medication ordering, storing, and dispensing, to assisting with more private issues with discretion, usually at an additional fee. Finally, there is also socialization that occurs naturally as well as structurally through the Activities Department. Music, bible study, movies, exercise, singing, art, and discussion classes are provided (already included in the rent) on a schedule available to all. Additionally, for those that do not bring their car or choose to be chauffeured, there is usually a van that transports residents to and from doctor's appointments and to shopping locations as well. Those that bring cars keep them in the parking lot. Between the food, the activities, the van, and the interaction with the staff, the isolation is eliminated, and with it much of the fear and anxiety of being alone.

So how to choose one place from another? What should you be looking for? What are the secrets to getting it right the first time? Having been in this space for over 12 years I can share with you the 4 keys to finding the right place.

1. Food.
Food is VERY important. You need to try the food yourself. If you don't like it, your Mom will not either. I go to Sunnycrest and eat the same exact food as the residents, often with a resident. Also the plates should look great and the dining room should be clean and nice. I recommend BEFORE bringing Mom that you visit each place around lunchtime and ask to sit and try the food. If they hesitate, run.

2. Location.
You don't want Mom or Dad living in a facility located on a major street. There is traffic, noise, and constant dust and dirt. You also want them to be able to walk around safely, preferably with a coffee shop and post office very close by so they can get out and stay active as much as possible. You also want to be as close as possible to the best hospital in the area. If you do that, it likely cuts down on travel time should there be an issue, and the hospital is likely surrounded by doctor offices, thus making physician visits close by and easy. I recommend finding a place within a few blocks of a hospital for those reasons. If it is further than that, drive to the best hospital around and ask them where they recommend.

3. Activities.
Activities are critical. When you visit grab the newsletter they have at the front desk and look at the calendar of events. If the events could be straight from 1965, beware. Find a place that has flat screens for movies and uses high tech tools. We recently bought a Wii game and 30 residents had a blast "bowling." Wii helps seniors stay physically and mentally sharp, social, and ahead of the game. This is just an example of how some consider activities crucial and some do not. If it is the same old bingo and making paper hats, move on.

4. Ownership.
This one might surprise you, but instinctively you know it to be true. Corporations own the majority of facilities and often have 300-400 "units" around the country. They are often publicly traded so their stock price is how they measure success. They put a pretty face on it but in the end you are a number on a giant spreadsheet. Compare that to a family-owned-and-operated community, where the owners speak with residents, meet the families, eat the food, and actually walk the building. It is very difficult to truly know how your facility is running while sitting at corporate headquarters located elsewhere. Family run operations tend to have boots on the ground, and they measure success by how happy the residents, and their families, tell them they are.

The worst part, I am told, of getting old is losing friends and loved ones. The idea of maintaining independence has been distorted. It should stand for doing what you want when you want, pursuing things that interest you, and staying out of medical facilities as long as possible. It should not stand for eating microwaved food alone night after night, straining with labels on pillboxes, or struggling to maintain a big empty house alone. Often people get care to come and live with them, or visit daily. This solves feelings of guilt, but does not address what the senior is actually missing. Sometimes seniors, or their grown children, do not want to admit that change is needed. The question is where will they be happier, more social, safer, and lead better and more fulfilling lives. No place is going to be perfect, and nothing is going to turn back the clock 40 years to a different time. However, you can improve their life and give them more of what they truly need because you can't be there all the time for everything. Time is precious, and quality time is the most precious commodity of all. The fact that you read this article until the last line suggests that for you the time to face this challenge has come.

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