Don’t wait to check out assisted living

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Christopher J. Gearon

Late last summer, William Senior, of Reston, Va., put down $2,000 to get on a waitlist for a two-bedroom assisted-living apartment at a nearby continuing care retirement community for himself and his wife.

His children had urged their parents to move into assisted living, a step between independent living and nursing-home care, ever since their 85-year-old mother, Lorraine, began requiring consistent home care in January 2015 for back issues that limited her mobility.

After waiting nearly a year, and twice getting bumped from the top of the waitlist by current independent-living residents in need of assisted-living care, Lorraine fell on Thanksgiving weekend and broke two vertebrae and two ribs.

“I should have followed my son and daughter’s advice and moved more quickly,” said Senior, 89, the Kiplinger Retirement Report’s founding editor. After his wife spent 10 weeks in a rehabilitation facility, Senior moved her to a temporary one-bedroom flat at a less-than-ideal assisted-living facility while he continued to search for a residence they could share.

Finally, after trying to get into three different communities, the Seniors plan to move this summer into a newly built one just a few miles from the home they shared for 50 years.

The Seniors’ experience is a lesson for those considering assisted living: Start your search early. Doing so can help avoid delays, frustration, wasted money and even buyer’s remorse.

But often assisted living is far from top of mind until a crisis strikes. “It is usually a crisis-driven decision,” said Maribeth Bersani, chief operating officer of Argentum, the national association representing assisted-living facility operators.

Starting the search

There is a lot to consider when it comes to assisted living. First is figuring out when the time is right. Most of us want to stay in our homes as long as possible.

But if assisted living may be in your future, do some preliminary shopping both locally and in an area to which you may move — to be near your children, for example. Assisted living is geared to those who are healthy enough to live on their own, but may need some help to live independently, perhaps with bathing, dressing or managing medicines.

Of the one million seniors living in some 31,000 assisted-living centers across the U.S., more than half are age 85 or older, and nearly 40 percent require assistance with three or more activities of daily living, according to Bersani.

When you start your search, consider only state-licensed facilities. Your Area Agency on Aging is a good place to get a list of options in your area, said Catherine Seal, an elderlaw attorney in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“You really have to physically visit,” advised Seal. Have a meal at the facilities on your list, and talk with residents about their experiences. “Walk around, see if the residents look clean and attended to,” she said.

Another consideration: the type of facility. Assisted-living arrangements vary widely, from a handful of residents in a home-like setting, to a high-rise building with hundreds of neighbors, to a campus-like atmosphere, with high-end services.

In some locales, assisted living is called a group home, retirement residence or residential care facility. Residents typically lease apartments — which can range from studio-like digs to two-bedroom spreads — on a monthly basis and eat in a common dining area.

Differing services

Care services and amenities also vary widely. For example, some facilities may provide a resident doctor, skilled-nursing care and physical therapy, whereas others may provide little care.

Some communities have concierge services, in-apartment dining, happy hours and top-notch fitness centers; others don’t offer much more than transportation to doctors’ appointments.

Argentum has developed a set of voluntary standards on a range of issues — including resident rights, care, staff training and qualifications, medication delivery and memory care. (Find a checklist of the standards at

According to Argentum, “typical” services include access to health care and medical services customized to specific needs, 24-hour emergency call systems for residents, three daily meals served in the dining area, housekeeping and laundry services, assistance with eating, bathing, dressing, toileting and walking as needed, as well as shuttle buses and exercise and wellness programs. Some assisted-living communities have specialized assistance for residents with dementia.

It’s important to read the fine print of the contract, which outlines services, pricing, extra charges and staffing. Inquire about how much and what time help is available and the level of care.

“There is a price for every package,” said Seal. Getting escorted to dining and back comes at a higher price than going on your own, for example, as does medication management.

Make sure the facility conducts criminal background checks on employees. Also, inquire about employee turnover rates and the staff-to-resident ratio.

What will it cost?

Like services and amenities, costs vary widely. The median monthly cost for a single, one-bedroom apartment in an assisted-care facility nationally runs $3,628 a month, according to the Genworth 2016 Cost of Care Survey.

In the Washington, D.C., metro area where the Seniors live, the median runs $4,400 for one person. In the Baltimore area, it is $3,370. The Seniors will pay $10,000 a month for a spacious two-bedroom, two-bath apartment.

“The facility will have a better-than-average caregiver-to-patient ratio,” said Senior, adding that his wife will get help getting out of bed, dressing and showering, and managing medicines.

“Dining will be restaurant-style. Eat when you like, no assigned tables,” said Senior. “At some facilities, you have an assigned seat and everyone gets served at the same time. I figured, hell, you don’t even have assigned seating in the Army.”

Before you sign a contract, consider having an elder law attorney review it. Seal also stresses the importance of being honest upfront about the care needed or behaviors of a loved one, such as combative behavior. Be certain such issues are addressed in the care plan, rather than left as a potential cause for eviction.

Finally, ask to review any complaints made to state agencies about the facility, as well as inspection reports. You can do some initial facility comparisons at

Find your state’s ombudsman through the National Long-Term Care Ombudsman Resource Center at Baltimore County’s long-term care ombudsman can be reached at (410) 887-4200.  

All contents © 2016 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc. Distributed by TCA, LCC.