Over the course of two decades, I visited loved ones in senior housing nearly every day.While my visits were focused on spending time with my loved ones and attending to their needs, it was natural for me to assess how the senior housing functioned as far as my elders' actual care was concerned.

We all have different criteria when we check out any situation. For senior housing, my personal top pick happens to be something that I'd call atmosphere. The atmosphere I'm talking about has little to do with decorating, although pleasant surroundings are desirable. I am referring to what may be called the "vibe."

Have you ever entered someone's home and felt good things about it even if it's cluttered or decorated in a way you find tacky? We find that a home can have an aura of happiness or lightness about it and we feel comfortable. Conversely, other homes feel as if the air is heavy and burdensome.

The same can be said for senior housing. While, by definition, senior housing facilities will be handling death situations on a fairly regular basis, the atmosphere itself should be one of lightness most of the time. Much of this atmosphere comes from the staff member's interaction with colleagues, the families and residents and their overall contentment with their jobs.

I'm not suggesting that every moment of every day at senior housing facility will be filled with peace and joy. However, if you visit often at different times of the day you'll see how staff members treat each other on a routine day and how they respond to extra busy times and emergency situations. You'll see the staff at their best – and their worst. So, my top tip is that you will want to observe how the staff members interact and how they feel about their jobs in general and the residents they care for. If you feel positive about the atmosphere in the care home, likely your loved one lives in a facility where the hands-on caring shows.

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What to look for when visiting senior housing

  • Are family members made to feel welcome whenever you visit?
  • Do you see lots of eye contact between staff members and the residents? If you note fear in a resident's eyes, find out why that is so. If you see that the smiles from the staff reach their eyes and extend to the elder, you've likely hit the jackpot.
  • Do you see physical affection from staff to residents such as gentle touches and hugs?
  • Are staff appropriately dressed, personable and outgoing? Are they friendly to you during visits?
  • Does your parent have good hygiene? Do they look presentable? Bathed, with clean clothes, hair washed and nails groomed?
  • What condition is their room in? It is well-maintained, or is it cluttered? Is it clean and fresh? Are they any foul smells?
  • If the facility serves meals, is there a varied menu? Is there a dietician on staff to make sure meals are nutritious? Are the meals nutritious without being bland or boring?
  • Are there choices of how often to eat and at what times? Can your senior have guests for meals?
  • Are there rooms residents can reserve for private gatherings?
  • Are there activities scheduled for a variety of tastes and ages? While bingo may be popular for some, technology these days should allow people to play games on Wii systems in groups or on their own. The home should offer a variety of music, art and maybe even theater.
  • Social activities should foster the ability for new people to get to know others at their own pace.
  • Exercise options should be varied so that people of all abilities can get the exercise they need. This may mean using the old standby of throwing around a large beach ball or a treadmill in an exercise room. Exercise shouldn't be one size fits all.
  • Are birthdays and other important events celebrated in ways that include family members as well as other residents?
  • Are there opportunities for people to volunteer to help others if they are able and choose to do so?
  • Are people encouraged to help themselves as much as they are able?

I'm not dancing around basics like health department ratings and a good record with medications and staffing. Far from it. Those considerations are a given, and most people have checked out the home before their loved one ever moved in.

If you haven't checked out the basics, go to the county website and look for health inspection ratings. A valuable site for finding out about severe problems such as health violations or abuse is to find the home's ombudsman at www.ltcombudsman.org. When you type in the Zip code of the home, you'll find a contact to help answer your questions.

Seemingly small things can add up. They can tell the story of the care home's quality in a meaningful way if you visit often and are open and aware – not overly critical and judgmental, but aware.

When I heard the staff at the nursing home where my parents lived joke with each other, I'd smile. Laughter was everywhere, except when there was a death. Then there were genuine tears from staff members who had lost a resident whom they'd grown to love. There's nothing like being there to see how the staff reacts to the death of one of "theirs" to tell you what kind of a facility it is. That feeling can't be quantified and ranked on website. It's all in the atmosphere or the "vibe" of the home.