Mar 10 2023

Ask these key questions when you research senior living options

Wendy Patton
A group of seniors laughs together while on a hike.

It’s the beginning of the rest of your life, and that makes the choice of a senior living destination a crucial one. If you or a loved one are considering this kind of transition, here are some key questions you should ask when beginning this important decision process.

Is the community for profit or nonprofit?

The answer to this question could have a big impact on your future. A nonprofit community is typically mission-based and governed by a volunteer board of directors. The community uses its resources to reinvest in its mission. 

A for-profit facility, on the other hand, may be publicly owned and concerned about stock prices, dividends, and the demands of shareholders. Or, it may be privately owned, with profits going to the company. 

Sometimes, a nonprofit may even have a resident fund to protect you if you run out of assets through no fault of your own. That’s an advantage a for-profit retirement community might not offer.   

Regardless of which model you choose, make sure you research what will happen if you or your loved ones run into financial difficulties. Also, take a close look at how the company manages its finances and how it treats residents (more on that later).

What kinds of care does the community offer?

Not every senior living community provides the same options for care. Rehabilitation stays are an important component, for example.

Suppose a resident goes to the hospital for relatively minor treatment and needs a few weeks of rehab afterward. If the senior community doesn’t offer that service, the patient will have to search for an alternative facility with an available bed, at extra cost, and will end up spending those weeks away from the community.

If the community does offer in-house rehab, it’s a completely different story. Patients can rest assured they can return right back to their senior living community, where the staff knows them and their needs, and friends and loved ones can easily visit.

Support services to analyze at each potential destination include personal care, skilled nursing, and memory support. Many Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) offer these services.

A nurse and an older woman share a laugh.

What is the quality of the care?

First, it’s important to know what kinds of services are available. Then, if you were to end up needing healthcare, it’s key to have confidence that the community offers the high level of care you will expect for yourself or a loved one.

A good place to check on different facilities is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website, which evaluates senior care and offers a rating from one to five stars. They consider factors like the level of specialty care, visitation policies, and more. 

Has the community demonstrated a track record of financial stability?

While every organization has to start somewhere, if an organization has been operating smoothly for decades, a proven track record like that provides confidence in its leadership.

In contrast, if a community frequently changes ownership, that’s a sign that more research is needed on its stability and future.

Ask to see annual reports and disclosure statements that will give a picture of the organization’s financial health. Also check to see if it has been examined by outside auditors

Another factor to consider is the size of an organization or company, and where it’s based. Is it a single entity, or does it have locations around the country? If it’s the latter, are they all in good financial health, or will impacts on a community in another state end up affecting the one you choose? Will the people making decisions about the organization live nearby, or thousands of miles away. 

The other part about an organization’s size to factor in is whether it’s big enough to have all the services you need, but still small enough that you can have a strong community feel and get to know people. It’s a balance. 

What’s the fine print?  

There are all kinds of contracts and agreements for senior living, so doing the homework and looking at the details are important. Get a copy of the contract, closely read it, and have someone you trust do so as well. 

Some facilities offer life care contracts, where your monthly fee stays the same even if you end up needing more care. Others follow more of a fee-for-service model. If the amounts differ, it’s important to make sure it’s an apples-to-apples comparison.

You can’t predict what the future will bring. But you can look at a life care contract that will give peace of mind that your monthly fee won’t suddenly increase if you need more care, or that the organization will send you somewhere else.

Residents at White Horse Village senior living community enjoy a bocce competition.

What is the culture like?

When it comes to the personality of a community, preferences differ. Some people might be comfortable in a high-rise, urban setting. Others might prefer a more rural campus or a small-town feel, with lots of green space and places for outdoor activities.

Different places have different cultures, too. It’s helpful to get to know some of the residents, get a feel for the community and look at the organization’s mission statement and values. Perhaps you might schedule a visit to meet with people who live there and ask questions about what life is like. 

You’ll also want to explore the culinary offerings—are there different options flexible to your tastes? What is the quality? Can they accommodate any dietary restrictions or preferences you have? Scheduling a visit during lunch or dinner to try it out is probably a good idea. Also check out the meal plans. Some facilities may require residents to purchase full meal plans, while other communities offer more flexibility. 

Social life is another key aspect to consider. Investigate the kinds of activities available for residents, and whether there are plenty of opportunities to mingle and socialize. You want to be sure there are engaging outlets for your interests that will contribute to a vibrant life. 

And of course, pets are very important to people’s lives, so you’ll want to make sure to look into the pet policies. 

The front door of a modern residence.

What kind of housing is available?

A big part of the flavor of life is the space we live in. Housing can vary quite a bit by quality and flexibility for different needs. You might want a spacious home or something more cozy like an apartment, or the option to make a change as your needs evolve.

Look at how many floor plans are available. You might not be set on all the details, but you can develop a sense of your goal, whether that’s the number of bedrooms that would be most convenient, or if you prefer an open kitchen or need office space. Consider the other spaces and common areas the organization has available as you make this decision. If you’ll be spending a lot of your time in common areas, you might not need as much space as you think.    

One aspect of housing is the customization options for the space. Do residents get to pick carpets and cabinets and colors?

In addition, check on the move-in process to see whether the organization offers support and flexibility as you transition. 

Doing the homework pays off

Decisions about senior living deserve careful thought and research. It’s crucial to do that in the beginning, saving headaches later on. You won’t regret putting in time to make sure the decision is the best for the future. 

Senior living community checklist

  • Solid financial health
  • Reliable ownership
  • Flexible cost and living plan options
  • Comprehensive and competent healthcare  
  • Housing that meets your needs
  • A welcoming community