Tuesday evening, PBS’s Frontline aired “Life and Death in Assisted Living.” If you haven’t watched it, please do.  I came away from it angry, horrified and saddened at the tragedy experienced by the residents and families.  The documentary also made me appreciate the many good assisted living providers who have wonderful people taking care of our seniors.

So how do you find the best operator, and the best fit for you and your family when it comes to assisted living?  If I were searching for a loved one tomorrow, here are five things that I would do.   

  • Create your personal checklist.  Identify what’s most important to you, your family and loved one; not only the medical care, but also the kind of social and emotional things that are important to you. We have a guide below that can help get you started.  This gives you a tool to rate the various places you visit. Just like Frontline did, ask questions, take notes and compare.  

  • Go online. Google the senior communities and companies you’re interested in. Find out if they have been in the news, good or bad. You may find public documents that outline the community’s latest health department inspections or complaint inspection results, or online reviews and ratings from customers. See what shows up on the databases of the state health department or the location’s regulatory agency.  If you need further clarification about your findings, contact those agencies directly and ask questions about the community.

  • Make multiple visits and at different times of the day, as well as on a weekend. Arrive unannounced at least once. Is there consistency in how you are treated when you arrive unannounced? Talk with residents, families and staff before you make your final decision. Observe the day-to-day activity and the relationships between the caregivers and the residents. Ask who will evaluate your loved one’s needs and create the care plan, and how will the plan be communicated to direct care staff and to you?   

  • Go beyond the pretty furnishings or curbside appeal.  Look to see if the community is clean and well-maintained. Find out if you can try their breakfast, lunch or dinner? Use all of your five senses to tell you if this community fits the lifestyle you’re seeking.  The quality of care and service you’ll receive ties directly back to the operator and how well they treat their employees, which in turn reflects on how well the employees treat the residents.

  • Ask if you and/or your love one can do an overnight stay before you agree to sign a lease or move your loved one into the community.  This will give you an opportunity to truly get an insider’s view. 

The seniors and families who shared their stories with Frontline and ProPublica experienced things that no one should have to go through. Every human being should have the opportunity to live out their years in the care of someone they trust and in a way that brings them safety, honor and dignity.

ProPublica reporter, A.C. Thompson, said, “There are, of course, skilled and dedicated individual caregivers working in the assisted living industry – professionals who are absolutely committed to providing our parents and grandparents with the best possible care.” My hope for you is that you are served by those very people. 

I’m thankful to Frontline for bringing this discussion to the public and providing additional resources for families.  If you have tips you’d like to share, please feel free to do so.  We must get this right as a Country, and as an industry. Our aging population is counting on us! 

In addition to the “Questions to Ask When Comparing Assisted Living Communities” on Ecumen’s Resource page, Frontline has posted “Seven Questions to Ask When Searching for Assisted Living” and other resources as a follow-up to last night’s documentary.

Shelley Kendrick is Ecumen's Vice President of Operations