What should you look for when evaluating a senior living community? What questions should you be prepared to ask? In our recent Senior Living LIVE broadcast, we talked with Karen DeMarco, Senior Care Counselor at Arbor Terrace of Burnt Hickory, about the things you can do to prepare for a senior living community tour. Watch below or read through our transcript.

Feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments, and we will be sure to answer them.

And, if you'd like to watch past episodes of our live broadcast, you can find them here.


Video Transcript

Chris: When you're touring a senior living community, what should you look for? What questions should you ask? What are the must-haves that you have? How can you be prepared to evaluate one community against another? Hey, everybody, I am Chris Harper, and my goal is to answer all of these questions and more for you today on this episode of Senior Living LIVE. What is Senior Living LIVE, you ask? Well, this is a show that's designed to dig deep into the world of senior living and give you answers so that you can make informed decisions. Our mission is to help you live the life that you want to live. Today we're talking about touring senior living communities. In last week's show, we discussed the things you should ask when calling a community for the first time and now we're taking that to the next step of the actual tour, the time when you go to the community and see it in person, meet the staff, and really start honing in on the community or the communities that you're interested in. So, as you can see, I'm not here alone today. I'm joined by the talented Karen DeMarco who's going to help me talk through this topic today. How are you doing today, Karen?

Karen: I'm doing well. Thank you.

Chris: Great. Thank you for joining us.

Karen: My pleasure.

Chris: So, Karen got here with very little traffic which we were ...

Karen: Yeah, I was happy.

Chris: … happy to see. That's always fun. So Karen, how long have you worked in senior living?

Karen: Senior living's always been a part of my life, but actual industry—goodness! Two and a half years.

Chris: Oh, wow. That's fantastic. That's fantastic. So in that time, you have seen a tour?

Karen: Correct.

Chris: Right? You have participated in a tour?

Karen: That is correct.

Chris: As the tour host or the person who's actually giving the tour—and have you actually toured a community, yourself, as a customer before?

Karen: Well, not so much as a customer but as a courtesy to my community. I think it's very important to tour all of the communities surrounding us, because this is a work in progress and we do want to be able to help families and know what's out there. So yes, as a consumer I guess you could say I've toured other communities.

Chris: And then that's a good point. I mean, there could be circumstances where your community is not the best fit for someone. You want to be able to recommend other communities in the area.

Karen: Yes, and guide and help and assist.

Chris: Yeah, great. Well, that's what we're talking about today. So if you are joining us live on the show give us a shout-out. Let us know where you're watching from right down in the comments below the video, and if you have any questions or any tips of your own that you'd like to share, any follow-up from what we are saying, be sure to leave those there and we'll check those throughout the show. Jonathan is watching. He says, "Great topic." So glad to see. Thanks, Jonathan. This is a good topic, we think at least, as we kind of work through the journey here in this little series that we're doing. Now, we're also talking—all of the information that we're talking about today is coming from … well, it's coming from the mind of Karen, to some degree. But we have also produced a checklist. So this is a checklist that we have on our site that you can download for free. It's called “Considerations Before Moving,” and it's got this little grid on it and you can write the different communities that you're looking at on the top, and then it's all these different things, these items down the side that you can kind of check off. Does this community have that? Does another community have it?

And what we've done is, we've kind of, you know—you do want to ask about amenities and apartment types and all that kind of stuff, but our checklist doesn't really have that, because ultimately, the communities that you visit, they're going to show you apartments and they're going to talk about their amenities. They're going to talk about the activities and things that they do. What we try to do with the checklist that we created is dive a little bit deeper into some  of the more important things, maybe. Not to say that amenities aren't important or pricing isn't important, but there's a little bit more that goes into it. And I think a lot of these would be the things that, if you didn't have a checklist, they would be things that you would have in the back of your mind anyway—or, it might be the impression that you have of the community, but you couldn't quite put your finger on it of why you'd like this more than another one. And so what we try to do is to give you a tool that gives you some of the questions and things that you can look for, and then you can, kind of on an even playing field, compare one community to another.

Now, I mentioned this checklist is available on our website and you can download it for free. To get to that, all you've got to do is just type the word “checklist” in the comments right below this video, and if you do that we will send you a little text message within Facebook Messenger. So you've got to be a user of Facebook Messenger and it will have a link for you to download it right there. So just easy-peasy. You can go ahead and do that now. Just write “checklist” in the comments, and then after the show, you can go and follow that link and download it. You can print it off, you can send it to a friend, whatever. If you don't use Facebook Messenger, you can just go to arborcompany.com/checklist, and it will take you to the checklist that way.

So I think we can dive right into this. So the checklist that we have, it starts with “first impressions.” I mean, that's a good way to start things.

Karen: Yeah, of course.

Chris: So, you know, Karen, tell me, what do you think about first impressions of the community? What does that look like in your mind?

Karen: Well, it's so very important because, as you said, you just can't put a label on it. It's a feeling; it's something you get. It's how you're greeted, if you have a warmth when you enter the building. It's bigger than the actual building itself. How you feel, how you're greeted, is very key and important. If the staff is smiling, if people come up to you and approach you and welcome you. All of those things are very, very key and important. You want to feel like a guest that's welcome in their home.

Chris: Yeah. I totally agree with that and, you know, I think you want to—it goes beyond looking at just is their grass cut and trimmed and all of that kind of stuff, and do they have pretty flowers out front all throughout the year, and is it clean as you walk in. That all is important, but I think it's also the first impression of, are you greeted when you walk in the door?

Karen: How you feel.

Chris: And how do you feel, right. You know when you walk into a place if you feel comfortable or not, and you should feel comfortable when you walk into the community even though you may be nervous and you may be going through a lot of things in your mind—but the community that's right for you, chances are will kind of ease those fears a little bit, right?

Karen: That is correct.

Chris: Okay.

Karen: I kind of equate it to searching for colleges, searching for day cares, house hunting. Everybody has their own idea of what's home for them, and it's going to be different for every person. And it does go full circle if you think about it.

Chris: Yeah. I would totally agree with that. So that is “first impression.” The next category that we have in our checklist is “communication.” And so, you know, some of the items that we have on here—all of my requests are responded to within 24 hours, the staff communication is clear and delivered in a timely manner—so these are things that throughout the sales process of looking at a senior living community, you're going to be talking with typically some type of salesperson like Karen in the community or the executive director at that community or other people. How well do they communicate with you? Because chances are that is a good indicator of what type of communication you're going to get from that community or from that company in the future, as things move forward.

So other items we've got on here are “the community encourages honest and open feedback” and “my feedback is valued.” So, any other thoughts about communication there?

Karen: I think when you speak of communication, one of the biggest components in my opinion is listening. Listening to the needs of that family walking through the door, understanding what they're communicating to us versus us strictly communicating to them because we are there to meet their needs. So the communication is a two-way street.

Chris: Yeah, I totally agree with that. So let's move forward. The next category we've got is “community culture.” So, do you feel that the community and the people who work there, do they care about seniors? I mean, it seems like the no-brainer thing but I think that's important. Do you get the feeling that the people who work there and the people who run that community are there for the right reason, or are they just there trying to make a buck.

Karen: Observe. Observe. It's, you know—we're going to give you one job and it's just to observe the community and what are people actually doing? You can tell if they're having a great day and they don't even notice you there but they're just enjoying their time with residents, families, friends. So that's the goal.

Chris: Yeah. And if you can as you're touring the community, chances are you'll see a staff member interacting with a resident, right? And just look at how that interaction goes. Is it cold and business-like, and is it just, they're there to get the job done or are they, you know, they're having some fun? They're joking around, they're cutting up. That's the kind of thing that you want to see.

Karen: And if it's genuine.

Chris: Is it genuine, yeah. Try to talk to some staff members. Introduce yourself in the hallway and just ask them how long they've worked there and how they like working there and they'll answer for you, and if you get shooed away from the staff members by the salespeople, then that could be a red flag but let's hope not, right?

And so that leads us into the next category that we have in the checklist which is “people.” Do you feel, as you have those conversations with the staff, are they warm? Are they—do they seem competent? Do they seem like they know what they're doing or did they all just get hired yesterday? Unfortunately, the senior living industry has a lot of turnover—statistically as the entire industry, and we in our company have been blessed, really, of having lower turnover than a typical community or company like ours. But, you know, I think that's something to ask: How long have the staff been here?

Karen: Yeah. I think you touch on a really great point there. And having that opportunity to meet the executive director to me is very key. Your RN, you know, find out first of all if they have a registered nurse on the premises and an LPN andtake that opportunity to meet them. Sometimes, you just assume there is an executive director on the premises and you tour, you have a great experience, and maybe there isn't one at the moment but you just wouldn't know that if you didn't ask. And that's very important because they are the leader of your community.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. And if you don't know, the executive director is sort of the industry term for the person who is in charge of the community. So if you think in hotel language, it would be like the general manager. In the senior living industry, we call them executive directors, and then they have different department heads within the community that report to them. So that is a huge piece. Another thing that I would ask about is training. What type of training do the staff go to? Do they show up on their first day of work and they're given a set of keys and told to have fun, or do they—do they have an ongoing training, do they have initial training when they first join the company? All of that is super important to think about, I think.

We've got a pretty strong training.

Karen: Very strong.

Chris: Do you talk about that when you give a tour to a community?

Karen: Oh, very much. As well as tenure of our staff, and we're very proud of that, and it's ongoing—the training—continuously and we really appreciate that. We really do.

Chris: Yeah, and that's something, you know, not every company does this but we train all of our staff. Even the folks who don't interact with residents on a regular basis. So behind-the-scenes people who may work in a kitchen or something like that, they get the same type of training for how to work with seniors in the different stages of the aging process and different stages of the memory loss process for those with dementia. And we find that tremendously valuable and not everybody in the community gets the same exact thorough training all the way through, but at least there's an initial—we call it Level One Training for everybody, that exposure, right?

Okay. So it looks like we got a couple of comments here. Jonathan, he's—oh, Jonathan's got a lot to say. So Jonathan says that he immediately looks at the residents' demeanor and how they are engaged by staff.

Karen: I think that's wonderful. Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Look at the residents and are they engaged, are they doing activities? I think that's huge. When you give someone a tour, do you try to take them to see residents, existing residents?

Karen: Well, the goal is that the residents are part of the community and they're out and about. So you obviously will bump into the residents, and it's a joy to introduce them to our community and hear their story and they're overall excited. The goal is they want to share the community with them. So thank you. That's a great tip that he brought up.

Chris: Yeah, thank you for that, Jonathan. That's a huge one. And I would say, too, to take that another step further, try to talk to those residents, right? And get their impression, learn their story. Where did they live before they moved into the community? What made them select that community? Don't be afraid to talk to those folks. I know I toured a community with one of my grandmothers. This is a couple of years ago now. And we actually had lunch and something that was really important to her was other people who were kind of on her same playing field in terms of her—you know, like she liked to play certain games and she wanted to make sure that there were people who were in her world smart enough to play those games.

Karen: Sure.

Chris: And so when we came in for the tour, we actually toured with the executive director of that community and she had us in for lunch. So we did the tour and then we sat down and had lunch, and she brought a couple of residents who had similar interests to my grandmother to the table and so we had lunch with them and were able to have a conversation. And that was huge for us because we were able to just spend more time, than just passing in a hallway, of getting to know people, getting to know what they like, and how they got to where they were. And so I would say ask for that. I think that's a—and maybe that's not on your first tour.

Karen: You had an experience and that's the whole goal when you go to senior living. It isn't—it is about a checklist to a degree, but it's more about how did you experience your visit.

Chris: Yeah.

Karen: That's your takeaway because you can go back home and review those notes but you want to be in the moment and really experience and take it all in.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. You could look at a brochure and see how many activities they do in a day or if they have a pool or not, or whatever. But it's—what we're trying to do here is to give you those intrinsic benefits and things that can be sometimes hard to vocalize and give you a way to do that.

Karen: And the curiosity of who lives at the community is so key, and I really enjoy tours around the dinner hour or lunch hour. There's a buzz in the room and people are talking and it kind of takes the edge down. We have a lot of residents that live with us now that toured on their own accord versus sons or daughters. There are all different kinds of people that will come in and tour. You can have daughter-in-laws, father, you know, so it's just really nice to break the ice a little when people come in to tour.

Chris: Yeah, that's a great point. So the next section that we have in the checklist is about “deep connections.” And so, I'll read a couple of things here. “An effort is made to personally know each resident. Staff engaging meaningful interactions.” I think we've covered some of this here. Do they have special events? So, you know, their activity program, we call it “engagement,” but it could be “activities” or it could be “life enrichment” or, you know, different companies call it different things. It's all the same stuff. But do they customize those calendars based on who lives in the community? I think that's huge. I mean, we've talked on the show about how important activity is and if everything that they do is boring to people or is not what the residents are interested in, then that's kind of a problem, right?

Karen: Right. Yeah, you want to individualize it and you want to just enhance or maybe open a window of something that the resident always has wanted to have done and they just never really got around to it. So it's a great opportunity to really explore who's moving into the community.

Chris: Yeah. And I would say don't be afraid to ask about the activities that you may be interested in.

Karen: Yeah. That's great.

Chris: So, you know, if you're like—so my grandmother again. That example. She's really interested in playing Mahjong and she wanted to move into a community that had people who play it. I mean, she was very specific about that. You may be a gardener, and you can still garden when you live in a senior living community. They have—a lot of communities have really great—do you have Ray's Gardens in the back?

Karen: We do, yeah. And we use the herbs, we use the tomatoes. The chef, chef Robert, he uses all that great stuff.

Chris: Yeah, see ...

Karen: He'll go out and pick jalapenos, and it's on the dinner table.

Chris: That's fantastic.

Karen: It's great.

Chris: And so, you know, if you're interested in that ask about it. Ask if they have classes, ask if they have—you know, if you're interested in lectures or discussion groups. A lot of communities have that. You got to kind of let the person who's giving you the tour know what you're interested in so they can show you what is available.

Karen: Right. And from an engagement standpoint that's so exciting, because if it's not something being done, what a great tool and a new discovery for everyone in the community. So yeah. It's really important to individualize.

Chris: That's fantastic. And then I would ask about residents who share similar interests. I mean, we talked about that a little bit but if you're interested in old cars and—you know, see if anybody else is interested in old cars and you may have some fun things to talk about. And then in the future, you may be able to work with the engagement director, activities director to plan outings and trips to car shows or things like that, using that example. So lots of fun ideas there.

So then that takes us to “resident care.” So to this point, we've been talking just sort of generally about senior living. The resident care piece comes in more in the assisted living and memory care space where you've got, nurses and care staff and folks who are taken care of. But if you are looking at assisted living, I would—one of the questions that I would ask is, how personal is the care that they're providing? You know, is it this cookie-cutter approach, or do you have any say in what your care looks like or what your preferences are? I think that's huge, right?

Karen: It's key. It's very key. Everyone is going to come in—individuals with different needs; we have couples come in. So we really want to design and build a plan that's going to work for each individual. Some may need more help. Some are there and have their own cars and just enjoy the fact of having three meals prepared for them and a social calendar, housekeeping included, too. So again, it's about each and every individual.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely.

Karen: Very important process.

Chris: I would say, you know, do they also offer any specialized care programs? Ask about the type of care, even if you don't need it right now. You could need it in the future. Hopefully, you don't. You know, you never know. So do they have diabetic management programs? Do they have rehab in the building? I think that's a big piece and, you know, the way I like to explain that is, if for some reason—you don't want to, but if you had to go out for surgery, a lot of times the doctor will prescribe you to go into rehab after that, which is typically a different type of place to live in. But if that community has rehab on site, it's going to get you back into your own bed and your own bedroom a lot faster.

Karen: Correct.

Chris: Than if you had to stay, you know, for multiple weeks or months.

Karen: And even a better tool. If you do need to go to a rehab, to know that you have rehab, an extension in place once you graduated from that. You're just going to get stronger and healthier, and that's really key.

Chris: Yeah. That's great. Okay, so let's talk about our accountability and financial solutions. What kind of financial solutions are available in the community? And a lot of times, they may not have their own financial solutions but what do they have available? What partnerships do they have with other companies? Could you just—we haven't really done a show about this yet, but could you explain some of the financial solutions?

Karen: Well, I can start to expand upon that. There are many types of financial solutions. Obviously, a lot of the components—people are coming in already as a homeowner, so they have the entire equity of their home. They can look at selling that home. Then, you have the component of veterans. This generation is a generation of veterans, and unbeknownst to them, there is something called Veteran's Aid and Assistance, which is a great tool and it will offset costs. If you're in lieu and do need an immediate move-in, we have something called Elder Law and that's across the board for any type of assisted living community out there. All the communities come together to try and help and assist. Very key. And it's really good to discuss and look at that financial component. Many people think they don't qualify, and just to sit down and when you do in home care versus longevity, you can really see the rewards and benefits. So it's really good to go through that.

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Karen: And we're here to help, you know. We want to advise correctly. That's very key that you know that.

Chris: So I think as you're comparing communities you want to look at communities that offer assistance with this type of thing and they seem like they know what they're talking about as opposed to them just pointing you to a website and hoping for the best.

Karen: Financial guidance is very key and important. We really, really want to review that and help you, and we want to ensure that six months down the road or a year down the road, you've made a great decision, and financially, you're going to be stable. And we want to ensure that we're guiding you correctly. That's very important. That's our duty, I feel, to financially share that.

Chris: And hopefully, you get that in every community you walk into but, you know ...

Karen: Yeah, it's an important component.

Chris: … you might not everywhere and so those are the types of things that you just want to see, is that community, the staff that you interact with, the salesperson you interact with, does it feel like they're on your team versus they're just trying to sell you something? I think that's a big component of it.

Karen: Our goal is to educate and help you. It really is.

Chris: Yeah, so just backing up a second. Jonathan again knocking it out of the park here.

Karen: Hey, Jonathan.

Chris: Jonathan mentioned ratios. So I think the staff-to-resident ratio in different departments in different living areas, that's a huge one to ask about, too, and, you know, jot it down on your checklist.

Karen: Yeah, very key. I mean, obviously, there are going to be state guidelines which you can find. Of course, Georgia's going to be different than any of the other communities so you want to be mindful of that. But yeah. That's a really, really important—and then you have to realize there are state ratios but depending on the needs of the individuals in the community, it should be higher versus lower. A lot of things. And again our goal is to educate and share what that really means.

Chris: Yeah. I would agree with that, too. So that kind of covers the checklist and again you can download that, and we'll talk about that in a second. But I think beyond that, Karen had a great idea that she shared with me when she got here today. So she's got this note—show them the notebook that you have here. And so what do you do with this notebook?

Karen: This is the notebook, and I am very fortunate to have a partner-in-crime named Lisa at my community, that also is a senior care counselor. One of the great things that we love to do is, when the tour has commenced and they're getting ready to go to the car, first of all, we hope they've only maybe planned one to two to three. No more than three tours a day, because it gets daunting.

Chris: Oh, I can imagine.

Karen: And we have them go to their car, and before they even turn that ignition key, write three things that they really, really felt great about. First impression, something that won't show up in a brochure, a feeling or a vibe, those things that aren't on paper. And then we also say, "You know, you may have had red flags that you kind of took out of your head and didn't want to exist but you may have had some red flags. And if so, two or three, jot those down, too, because you're going to forget them." But when you go back and remind—and then, you know, that's our duty as the executive director. He can call the next day, and they can review that list and answer your questions.

Chris: Yeah. I think ...

Karen: That's our goal.

Chris: I think that's huge and, you know, and ask those questions.

Karen: Ask the questions.

Chris: And you're not going to think of everything while you're on the tour. In fact, the next question—the first question you have is going to be as you're walking to the parking lot back to your car.

Karen: Right. Well, what did I say to you? I was like, "Remind me to talk about it, because I'll forget."

Chris: There you go. Because you forget things, right, and so you want to write it down.

Karen: Yeah, I think it's just valuable. It's easy, too.

Chris: And that's why I think it's valuable to have a checklist like this to be able to—you know, some of these things are prewritten and on the checklist, and it's right here. So you've got these columns here where you can write the community names. You can check things off and, you know, add your own things. What's important to you? See what communities have and what they don't because you're going to forget. That's how it works.

Karen: Yeah, and that's a good tip, I would say. It's not on here, as well, but everybody has different things that are important. Find out what are the three most important things to you when you're looking because, again, it's going to be different from your neighbors. It's really key to think of what's most important for the resident that's going to be moving in and joining us, as opposed to maybe the daughter or son. But let's put, you know, Mom or Dad or Grandma and Grandpa in perspective and really hone in on what are their needs, what's important to them. And it kind of narrows down the overwhelmingness of it.

Chris: Yeah, I think that's a huge point. Well, so, we've shared a lot of information today. And I think the big picture with all of this is that you should be prepared with the things that you want to look for in a community and the questions that you want to ask before you come in for a tour. And you may not know everything but, you know, try to think ahead. What's important to you? What's important to Mom? And make sure you have that list with you at every community so that you can evaluate them on as common ground as possible. Now if you did not write down everything we talked about today, never fear. We've got you covered. Just type the word “checklist” down in the comments below, and we'll be sure to send you our free checklist that gives you all of these points and more. You could print it out, take it with you on a tour, keep it in your car, whatever. There are even columns, like we said, so you can compare all of the communities that you're touring in one place. You can also access that checklist by going to arborcompany.com/checklist or again just typing the word “checklist” in the comments below.

If we talked about something today that you think someone else you know may find helpful, please share this information with them, share the video with them. There's a little share button right below the video. We want this information to help as many people as possible, and you can play an important part in that, in someone's life. So next week's show is going to be at the same time, Tuesday at 11 a.m. If you want a reminder in Facebook Messenger, we can send that to you. Just type the word “show” in the comments below, and I will send you a message with a link when we go live. You can just click it right there in the Facebook Messenger app on your phone or iPad. Super helpful.

Thanks for joining our conversation today. I'm so happy that you're here, that you're joining us. Keep those comments coming. Let us know if you have any questions. We will answer those in the comments or in a future show. And if you're going to go on a tour, let us know. We want to know how it went, wherever you are. If you're near an Arbor Company Community, great. If not, we want you to find the best place. We want you to live your best life. And, we want to get any feedbacks from you and tips that you may have for other people. I think ...

Karen: Is it Jonathan?

Chris: Does Jonathan have another comment here? I don't see. My comments aren't refreshing. So yeah. So with that, I think we will wrap things up today. We will see you next week. Thank you, Karen, for joining us. We're so happy to have you here. Will you come back to be on the show again?

Karen: I will come back.

Chris: Okay, good. As long as we do it outside of Atlanta traffic time, right?

Karen: Yeah, yeah. And it was fine. I've learned to live with that. It's fine.

Chris: Well, thank you all for joining today. You can see more episodes at seniorlivinglive.com. It'll take you right to our video page on Facebook. I will see you next week. Bye-bye.

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