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How to choose a senior living community

Its a tough decision, but an expert offers some basic tips


by: PHOTO: MERRY MACKINNON - One recent evening, residents of Southeast Portlands Hawthorne Gardens Senior Living Community enjoyed fish stew and green bean salad with feta, among other menu offerings served in the dining room. Hawthorne Gardens was among those selected in the Portland area for the 2013 Best Senior Living Communities Award, sponsored by SeniorHomes.com.Whether it's an assisted living facility or a nursing home community, choosing a senior living residence for oneself or for a loved one is a downright difficult decision.

For one, the numbers and variety of such housing options can be confusing. Many thousands of facilities exist nationwide, reflecting a range of often-attractive housing opportunities available to seniors — from independent living apartment complexes that offer spas and cruises to well-run memory care communities that feature round-the-clock lockdown supervision for people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

The typical person making such a decision is a baby-boomer daughter looking for a senior living community for a parent. The questions on her mind are likely to be what to look for and how to find the best senior living community out there.

Lauren Heinatz of ComForcare Senior Services of Portland, Salem and Vancouver areas has answered those questions many times in her job as a transitions director. That experience prepared Heinatz to be a judge for the 2013 Best Senior Living Communities Award, sponsored by SeniorHomes.com, a free online directory of senior communities nationwide.

Although SeniorHomes.com CEO Chris Rodde said his company makes a profit by getting paid by senior living communities for top billing on his website, the directory lists 80,000 communities and includes articles and information on senior living arrangements and other aging issues.

At the top of Heinatz's list of recommended steps to take when choosing a senior living community is to check out the quality of the food.

“Go and eat in their dining room,” Heinatz said.

Also, review the licensing. See if any complaints were lodged with the state or the local Chamber of Commerce.

“Visit the site. Is it safe and clean?” she said. “It varies greatly.”

But don't be deceived by looks, she cautioned: “There can be beautiful communities, but the staff may not be great.”

Watch how aides interact with residents, she said, adding that knowing the number of aides per resident is also important. Visit the community at night. And ask the staff members whether they like working there.

Find out if there's a registered nurse on staff and for how long per day. “And I would interview the RN,” Heinatz added.

Finally, keep in mind that certain facilities, such as memory care communities, fill up fast.

“It can be hard to get into a good one, and most are pretty full,” she said.

So don't wait until the eleventh hour to become informed about senior living communities, Heinatz said.

“People need to do homework ahead of time before it's a crisis.”

More info

Oregon's assisted living facilities, nursing and foster homes, residential care facilities and memory care communities are licensed by the Oregon Department of Human Services. Inspection notices called Health and Life Safety reports should be posted at the facility, and the public is encouraged to ask the facility manager to provide those reports.

Copies of complaints against nursing homes, assisted living facilities, residential care and foster homes are available to the public at local county Aging and Disability Services' offices. In Multnomah County, those reports are kept at Adult Protective Services, 4610 S.E. Belmont St., Suite 206, Portland, 97215, 503-988-4450. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.