Looking for Assisted Living? Add these 6 Items to Your Checklist

Updated 1.22.21 from a post originally published 3.19.18.

The process of choosing an assisted living community can be complex. And it’s an incredibly important decision: you’re helping a loved one decide where they might spend the rest of their life – or making that decision for yourself.

Thanks to the many resources available online, you don’t have to be an assisted living expert to know what to look for in a community. In fact, the AARP offers a helpful checklist that includes all the basic questions to ask and things to look for while hunting for assisted living.

But these days, there’s more to consider than contract terms and whether rooms have kitchenettes. The pandemic has underscored the necessity of strong technology and communication systems in senior living when in-person contact is not an option.

As you consider various assisted living communities, add these questions about technology to your checklist.

Evaluating Technology in Assisted Living Communities

Why does technology matter in assisted living? Data shows that certain types of technology can improve outcomes for residents, their families, and the employees who care for them. In other words: better technology means a better experience for everyone.

Rather than asking broadly about what tech a community uses (and risking getting an answer that’s either uselessly broad or too technical to follow), try these:

1. How do you communicate with residents’ families?

In one survey, more than half (54 percent) of those with a family member in a nursing home said they only heard from caregivers in an emergency. That’s not ideal for most people (residents and families alike). 

And during the pandemic, no regular contact with a loved one’s community can be a cause for concern.

With the tech solutions available today, assisted living communities can contact families easily and seamlessly. Some even allow automated check-ins around residents’ activities. When you look for answers to this question, get specific about what formats are used for family communication, how often that communication happens, and what events trigger communication (e.g., is it only when a family member calls to ask a specific question, or is there proactive outreach?).

2. How do you schedule events and activities for residents?

Your loved one’s quality of life will be greatly impacted by the availability and type of activities their assisted living community offers. But in the day-to-day world of residential care, remember that the functionality of the calendar is just as important. How do they communicate last-minute room changes? How do you make sure all residents have access to the calendar?

Again, technology can help solve for this: digital calendar programs can track events daily, weekly, and monthly. They can be sorted and searched by activity type and by dimension of wellness. And they can be easily updated and shared with family members.

3. Can I see your events calendar?

When you look at it, make note of its format (paper? Digital? Both?) and location (easily visible to all residents?). Ask about specific activities: which dimensions of wellness do they promote? How do you track attendance?

To understand why this is important, imagine this scenario: you’re talking to your mom, who’s been in her new community for just a week. You ask her what she did all day and she says she did nothing – she just sat in her room. But when you call the community to check, the CNA on duty insists that she attended a singalong and a stretching class. Who do you believe? If the community has a digitized calendar system, you don’t have to worry: these systems allow for seamless, digitized attendance that lets you keep tabs on your loved one.

So in a situation like this, you can raise the alert right away and have staff check to make sure your loved one is properly hydrated and otherwise healthy – and if she’s not, have them run cognitive tests.

4. What’s staff turnover like?

And also: what are you doing to improve it (if it’s high)? Turnover rates are a good indication of what the environment at the community is like. If it’s not a pleasant place to work, staff is likely to leave quickly. Most of us would choose an assisted living facility with a stable staff, to make it easier to build relationships with the people we see everyday.

A lot of assisted living facilities rely on certified nursing assistants (CNAs), whose turnover rates tends to be higher than among higher-skilled medical professionals (24.6 percent was the average in 2017).

The point of the question is not to find the lowest possible turnover rate (though low turnover is generally better than high) but rather to do two other things:

  • Get an idea of whether the community is tracking this number. If they are, it suggests they’re analyzing data to learn about and improve their operations. That’s a good thing, as it implies they take technology seriously and will catch problems like staff turnover sooner rather than later.
  • Ask what they’re doing about it. We’ve found that 20 percent of employees say that insufficient technology in residential communities can hasten burnout. If a community doesn’t offer any concrete plans for reducing turnover or improving the workplace for employees, proceed with caution.

5. What are your resident satisfaction rates?

Of course you want to see high rates, but there will always be complainers. The more important thing here is to see whether the community actively tracks satisfaction. Again, the act of tracking is just as important as the finding. A community that measures resident satisfaction is likely using technology-driven tools to benchmark its performance and find ways to improve.

6. Do you use electronic health records (EHR)?

There are many benefits to using EHRs, one of which is that information about your loved one is much easier to track and review. That’s a nice-to-have on an ordinary day, but it can be life-saving if they require hospitalization or are getting care from a new or substitute caregiver.

EHRs are much better than paper files at highlighting allergies, existing medications, and underlying conditions that should affect the type of care a person receives.

Here’s a spoiler for you: electronic health record systems can actually help with a lot of items on this checklist. EHRs often incorporate digital calendar elements and family communication modules. When a community is using an EHR, life is easier for employees: less time spent on paperwork means less burnout. This makes things more pleasant for residents, too: they enjoy more time interacting with caretakers and less time waiting for those caretakers to find information in a chart.

What to Look for in Answers

Obviously, asking the right questions is the first step in choosing an assisted living community. But knowing what to look for in the answers you receive is just as important. Overall, pay attention to the following:

  • Specificity: Numbers, data, and other concrete answers are a good sign. Vague responses suggest that the person is not sure or is hiding something.
  • Admitting ignorance: It’s okay (and refreshingly honest!) if the person says, “I don’t know,” but ideally they’ll then say that they’ll put you in touch with a person who can answer your question.
  • Patience: Whether you’re on the phone or at the physical location, chances are you’ll be talking to a member of the sales team. This person should be aware of the magnitude of the decision you’re making and should take the necessary time to answer your questions thoughtfully and thoroughly. If they’re not, consider it a red flag.

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