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How to Pick an Assisted Living Residence

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Dear Savvy Senior:

Can you give me some tips on picking a good assisted living facility for my mother? Her health has declined to the point that she can't live alone anymore but she isn't ready for a nursing home, either.

-- Need Assistance

Dear Need:

If your mother needs some assistance with daily living activities like bathing or getting dressed, managing her medications, preparing meals, housekeeping, laundry or just getting around, an assisted living facility is definitely a good option to consider.

Assisted living facilities are residential communities that offer different levels of health or personal care services for seniors who want or need help with daily living.

While there's no standard blueprint for how they're constructed, an assisted living facility may be part of a retirement community or nursing home, or they may stand alone. Most communities have between 25 and 125 suites, varying in size from a single room to a full apartment. And some even offer special memory care units for residents with dementia. Here are some simple steps you can take to help you find a good facility.

Make a list: Start by calling your Area Agency on Aging (call 800-677-1116 or visit www.eldercare.gov for contact information) for a list of assisted living facilities in the area. You can also do a search online at senior housing locator sites like snapforseniors.com, or check your local yellow pages under "senior housing" or "assisted living."

Call your ombudsman: This is a government official who investigates long-term care facility complaints and advocates for residents and their families. This person can help you find the latest health inspection reports on specific assisted living facilities, and can tell you which ones have had complaints or other problems. To find your local ombudsman, call your area aging agency or see ltcombudsman.org.

Call the facilities: Once you've narrowed your search, call the facilities you're interested in to find out if they have any vacancies, what they charge and if they provide the types of services your mother needs.

Tour your top choices: During your visit, notice the cleanness and smell of the facility. Is it homey and inviting? Does the staff seem responsive and kind to its residents? Also be sure to taste the food and talk to the residents and their family members, if possible. It's also a good idea to visit several times at different times of the day and different days of the week to get a broader perspective.

Also, find out about staff screening (do they do background checks?) and training procedures, and what percentage of their staff leaves each year. Less than 30 percent annually is considered good. More than 50 percent is a red flag. To help you rate your visit, the Assisted Living Federation of America offers a handy checklist at alfa.org/checklist.

Assisted Living Costs
Since Medicare does not cover assisted living, paying for this type of housing is another area you may have questions about or need assistance with. Monthly costs for assisted living ranges anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 or more, depending on where you live, the facility you choose and the services provided. Most residents pay out-of-pocket from their own personal funds, and some have long-term care insurance policies.

If, however, your mom is lower-income and can't afford this, there are some states that have Medicaid waver programs that help pay for assisted living. Or, if she's a veteran, spouse or surviving spouse of a vet, she may be able to get funds through the VA's Aid and Attendance benefit. To find out about these programs, ask the assisted living facility director, or contact her local Medicaid office (call 800-633-4227 for contact information) or regional VA office (800-827-1000).

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.