Life and Death in Assisted Living

I recently watched a PBS special entitled “Life and Death in Assisted Living” produced by Frontline.  It focused on Assisted Living communities, specifically Emeritus Senior Living, which is the industry’s largest chain, at just over 40,000 members nationwide.  The show discussed the role assisted living plays in the lives of seniors today, the lack of regulation over this level of care, and highlighted various lawsuits against Emeritus for negligence, wrongful death and other situations.

What I came away with after watching the special was the following:

  1. I had a renewed sense that the search for appropriate care as we age is neither an easy one nor is it a standardized one.  We should not be sending family members out to take tours of facilities by themselves and expecting that they can adequately assess the pros and cons of each facility.  The tours are given by sales professionals and their end goal is to sell.
  2. Care received in these facilities varies widely.  This can be due to inadequate training, insufficient staffing, wrong hires, and even the higher mandate by management to keep occupancy rates high.  These issues can result in real risks to the senior’s well-being.
  3. It is critical for seniors who are considering care or are already receiving care to have an independent advocate.  Due to declining health, cognitive issues or even basic loneliness, someone other than the senior needs to be looking over the facility’s shoulder and asking the hard questions when things don’t seem quite right.  If an aging parent lives far from family, a geriatric care manager can act as the local advocate for the parent in the absence of a local family member.
  4. Plan and consider goals in elder housing well in advance of any need.  Have contingency plans in place in case the desired option doesn’t work out, especially in the case of aging in the home.  Look at the situation and the available choices from a comprehensive standpoint, considering Long Term Care insurance, estate goals, pricing options, the overall appeal of the community and foremost, the senior’s overall health situation.  As a senior, if you educate yourself well in advance of any problems, you will have more choices available to you and therefore be better able to remain in control of the future direction of your life.
  5. Maintain a strong relationship with your family members.  Just because a senior has made a decision and moved to an assisted living community, the work is not done.  Be attentive and tune in to the atmosphere and the surroundings when visiting.  If things don’t seem right, ask questions and investigate until you are satisfied with the answers.  Be realistic about when it is time to have additional care and have a plan in place for how this will occur.  Assisted living facilities are not equipped to provide ongoing skilled care and a senior in need of this level of assistance can be in danger if a change to the higher level of care does not occur.

These are complicated choices with sometimes life altering consequences.  The options and the circumstances should be researched carefully and be part of an overall plan that aligns with the senior’s future goals.  Facilities can be vastly different in their delivery of assistance and since care needs are constantly changing, seniors need advocates to help ensure their ongoing safety.