What to Look For When Visiting an Elder in Senior Housing


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.

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.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Minding Our Elders

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I noticed that the article seemed to deal more with Senior nursing type facilities as opposed to Senior housing as the story implied. The reason I clicked to read is because I am the property manager of a Senior Housing Apt complex in North Carolina and was hoping to find some information I could use. While the information about the atmosphere is accurate and how the staff (two of us) relates to each other and to residents is important the rest of the article really didn't seem to provide me with much further information. We don't have meals prepared or medical staff as this is what you might call "independent living" apartments where the residents cook for themselves and have CNAs assist them, if needed, but not a service provided. We do have activities (Bingo, church, cookouts, parties, Resident Association meetings they do on their own as a group etc.) and the building is painted in bright happy colours. There are over 60 residents.Just like with any group some of these become friends with each other and others are "loners." Each resident has his/her own apartment and not just a "room" and each person is treated with dignity and respect and may remain an individual. Hopefully the atmosphere at this property, as suggested in the article, is peaceful and happy and presents a nice aura. I suppose the article does partially deal with my type housing but I just want folks to know that there are Senior Housing properties that are available that do not provide any medical care and where their Senior family member is still a thriving independent person in the community. Usually our next move is TO a nursing facility of some kind.
To all tose families who have siblings in Nursing Homes... Please. Please. Keep your ears and eyes opened. Your parents need you to always be there for them. Don't just drop them off and forget about them... It's a sad situation. Some Nursing Homes can be reallly careless. I should know. I had an Uncle who died in a Nursing Home... I feel guilty that i couldn't do more for him.....judy
This is an excellent article, and important to know as much as you can about any facility, regardless if it is a group home, residential home for a few seniors, or a nursing or congregated home. Also, you can look up reports for each facility if they have problems, which is very important. My husband own and operate a Residential Care Home for seniors. It is very important that everything mentioned above can be felt in our home. We have a wii, but sometimes, especially if they cannot remember how to use it, it can be frustrating. The most important thing to us for seniors is family and friends involvement, regardless how far away they live. You can use Skype where they can see their family, friends and loved one. We kept a weekly blog where we updated what was going on with the senior, and all friends and family could be members of this blog, and share pictures, notes, etc. We would print all emails and pictures that were sent to them, and read the emails to them if they had problems with reading. The pictures were placed in frames and on a big bulletin board where it would be the first thing they saw when they came into the the common area of the house and the last thing they saw when they went to bed. Having them to be able to keep up with their grandkids means everything. The ability to see them grow, things they do, their voice, etc. especially means a lot when they are miles away from them. We opened our home as it just burned us up how badly seniors were getting little care when it came to their emotions and well being overall. They deserve so much, and it is just SAD that they get so little. Katie