How to evaluate a retirement community

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Adele Winters


If you’re considering a move for yourself or a family member to an independent living retirement community, there are a number of criteria you should consider before making your final decision.

Among the most basic things to consider is the quality of the staff, facility and programming. Concern for residents’ safety is especially important.

Look for:

• On-site amenities, such as a beauty shop, banking and postal services, transportation, and a variety of meal programs.

• A varied calendar, with activities that are of interest to you, including religious services, if that is an important consideration.

• Staff (front desk, maintenance, housekeeping, food service, etc.) who are trained to notice changes in residents’ appearance, mobility, personality, etc.

• An alert system so that the management or social services office will be notified if mail has not been picked up, if a resident hasn’t been on time for a regularly scheduled activity, etc.

Is it your kind of place?

The physical environment of the facility is also an important consideration. Are the corridors too long; is the facility too fancy, too intimidating, too much like a hotel?

Some people prefer a homey, smaller setting, while others prefer a larger, more anonymous facility.

Look for unobtrusive supports — such as handrails in corridors, high, firm furniture in common areas, and low-pile carpeting to facilitate the use of walkers and wheelchairs.

Some other things to take note of include:

• How many residents have their own cars?

• Is there bus transportation? A wheelchair lift? How far is it to the prospective resident’s family, physicians, grocery store, shopping center, church or synagogue, etc.?

• Are there intergenerational programs with nearby schools and day care centers?

• Is there a buddy system or welcoming committee to help new residents become acclimated?

• Are pets permitted? This may be an issue if you have allergies, or are afraid of animals.

• Are there wellness services such as blood pressure checks, a mobile dentist, etc.?

• Are there housekeeping and laundry services?

• Are options available for adding services — such as meals, personal care, medication management — on an a la carte basis?

Try the food

Food, and the social interactions that accompany community meals, are prime considerations for many. If the facility serves regular meals, try to make arrangements to join the residents for lunch or dinner. This will give you the opportunity to answer the following questions:

• How is the food presented? How does it taste?

• How do the staff and residents interact?

• What is the behavior of the other residents like?

• How do the residents dress for meals?

• Is the atmosphere lively or quiet?

• Does the dining room have sound-absorbing materials such as drapes, acoustical tiles and table linens to help hearing-impaired residents enjoy the social interaction?

• Is the lighting too subdued or too strong?

• Are menus distributed in advance so that residents can select alternate entrees?

• Can meals be delivered to individual apartments? How often? How much does it cost?

• Does the admissions staff tell the dining room manager about new residents so tablemates can be matched by similar interests/backgrounds?

• Is there open or assigned seating?

• If a resident has a private duty aide, is the aide allowed in the dining room? (This would be a good time to ask the facility about their policy on private duty aides as well. For example, do residents have to use an in-house agency or registry?)

• Is there a monitoring mechanism in place so that someone is alerted if a resident misses a meal?

Once you’ve answered all these questions to your satisfaction, make an unannounced visit and ask random residents how they like the facility.

Even better, stop residents or their family members in the parking lot (where they are more free to talk openly) and ask about their experience.