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What to Look for When You’re Looking for a Retirement Community

Andrea Donovan, 57, owner of Senior Living Advisors in Riverside, has analyzed 450 retirement homes in the Chicago area. Here are her tips for finding the right match.

Andrea Donovan
Andrea Donovan   Photo: Bob Stefko

How have local senior-living offerings changed recently?

The homes are becoming so sophisticated in terms of à la carte services. Let’s say you’ve got a senior who is at the independent level—meaning that person can pretty much take care of himself but maybe needs a little help with housekeeping or meal preparation. He can order that service. It’s called person-centric care, and it allows people to remain in their apartments for a much longer time.

How much can people expect to pay for a decent place?

Rents range from $3,300 to $7,000 per month. Some of them are private pay [i.e., they accept only cash or private insurance]; others accept Medicaid. There’s a good fit for every senior—it’s just a matter of figuring out what you’re looking for, how much you want to spend, and what your medical needs might be.

What is it that you do exactly?

Somebody said that I was like a broker for retirement communities, which is true, but I’m not compensated by any of the communities. I’m paid by clients to find them the right fit. My client population is almost never the seniors themselves; I’m almost always hired by the child.

What do you tell your clients when a parent is reluctant to go into a home?

I worked for a long time as an admissions director at St. Andrew Life Center in Niles, and whenever I saw a child force a parent in against their will, the outcome wasn’t good. So I tell them to see if the senior can do a trial stay. They can see what the other people are like, taste the food, try the activities. I’ve had seniors come back and say, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

How should people approach their search?

Ignore the crystal chandelier and the smell of potpourri or freshly baked cookies. Everybody wants a place to be pretty, but the only thing that matters is the people who provide direct care to the residents. And if the place doesn’t have activities that fit the person’s likes, they’re not going to be happy. Fifty percent of my clients are people whose parents are already in homes but they are dissatisfied with the care.

What specifically should someone look for?

Watch the way the admissions director treats you and the senior during the initial tours and subsequent meetings. Also, people laugh when I say this, but make sure to try the food. I’m not talking about the food at a special event where the public is invited—I’m talking about everyday meals.

What are some warning signs of a bad place?

Empty apartments or beds are never a good sign. I always read the results of the annual survey of nursing homes conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health to see whether the nursing home was issued deficiencies. The results can be found on medicare.gov. [On February 20, Medicare lowered the ratings for nearly a third of nursing homes nationwide after tightening standards.] Odor is a concern if it permeates an entire building. But seniors will have accidents, so if the odor is temporary, excuse it.

What questions should people ask?

Find out the ratio of assistants to residents. Very generally, a ratio of 1 to 8 is most common in assisted living, 1 to 12 at nursing homes. Ask about transportation schedules and outings. This is extremely important for seniors who no longer drive. You will also need to ask what criteria trigger a senior’s move to the next higher level of care. One last important question: What happens if my loved one outlives his or her funds?

What are some good resources to get people started?

The Administration on Aging provides excellent resources for the care of older adults. The Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities is an independent, nonprofit accrediting agency for health and human services. It is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for retirement communities. And if you are trying to find information regarding the financial stability of a retirement community, you can check Fitch Ratings.

Did you find a retirement community for your own parents?

I wasn’t in the business when my father had to go to a nursing home, but that experience gave me an opportunity to observe how important staffing is and how important cleanliness is. The fact that he was not well taken care of really gave me an education in what you should look for. My mother, bless her, is still independent and in her own condominium at 94.

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