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Your guide to assisted living

by Maryalene LaPonsie

Assisted living arrangements offer the best of both worlds: independent living for senior parents and peace of mind for their children.

Assisted living can be a good choice when a loved one is ready to downsize from a house but doesn't need skilled nursing care.

"This is an option when a person is generally healthy and doesn't need a lot of complex care," said Gina Kaurich, a credentialed Professional Geriatric Case Manager and Executive Director of Client Care Services for FirstLight HomeCare.

Kaurich says assisted living may make sense for those who can live independently and are mobile but need assistance with laundry, meal preparation or medication reminders. However, while individuals moving into an assisted living facility may have their own room or apartment, they should be prepared to live in a community setting.

Types of assisted living facilities

Facilities offering assisted living may go by many different names. The Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) says they can be found under the labels of residential care communities, adult congregate living communities, personal care homes or community residences.

While assisted living facilities can vary, most provide residents with an apartment and access to common areas. According to ALFA, residents can typically enjoy the following amenities and services:

  • Meals served in a common dining area
  • Housekeeping services
  • Laundry service
  • Assistance with bathing, dressing and personal hygiene
  • 24 hour security and emergency call systems
  • Medication management

Some assisted living facilities are part of continuing care communities. These communities include independent living options, assisted living and nursing home care. Residents may begin in an independent living arrangement and gradually move to a more intensive care setting as needed.

Tips for selecting an assisted living facility

Once the decision has been made to move a parent or loved one into an assisted living facility, care should be taken to thoroughly evaluate the available options. Each community will offer its own set of amenities and each may have a distinct living environment.

"Always take a tour," said Kaurich. "And be sure to ask about social activities."

Since assisted living facilities generally cater to individuals who are relatively healthy, a variety of social activities can be important to ensuring a high quality of life for your loved one. In addition, opportunities for outings or physical activity can help maintain good physical and mental health.

ALFA also recommends caregivers and potential residents consider the following five areas of the facility:

  1. Environment. Is the location and appearance of the facility appealing? Is the staff professional, warm and welcoming? Do residents socialize with one another? Can the residents have visitors at any time?
  2. Physical features. Are the common areas and floor plans appealing and easy to follow? Are handrails available in the hall? Is the facility clean, odor-free and a comfortable temperature? Are floors of a non-skid material?
  3. Medication and health. Can medications be self-administered? How are medications stored? Does the facility have a clearly established procedure for medical emergencies? Is there a staff person assigned to coordinate home health-care visits?
  4. Services and amenities. Is staff available around the clock to assist with daily living tasks such as bathing and personal hygiene? How long does it take for residents to arrange transportation? Are housekeeping services provided for private living spaces?
  5. Individual apartment features. Are bathrooms accessible to those with wheelchairs and walkers? Can residents keep food in their apartment? Is smoking permitted? Are there limitations on the furnishings or the type of decorations a resident may use?

Paying for assisted living care

Laura Rossman, a member of the Board of Directors for the American Society on Aging, says personal resources such as the proceeds from a house sale are commonly used to pay for assisted living. Long term care policies may also provide some coverage for assisted living.

"Some older policies may be limited to nursing homes only," said Rossman, "but most of the plans now being sold - and over the past decade - cover care in a choice of places."

The 2011 Market Survey of Long-Term Care Costs, conducted by MetLife, found the average monthly base rate for assisted living communities was $3,477 in 2011. Kaurich notes caregivers should be aware actual monthly costs can be higher depending on how the community bills for amenities.

"Find out how much they are going to be charged for laundry or things that aren't part of the monthly fee," she said.

Although Medicare does not pay for assisted living, ALFA says some states may cover certain assisted living arrangements through their Medicaid programs. For more information on whether this is an option in your area, contact your state's social services or human services department.