THE BLOG
05/22/2013 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013

Assisted Living or Assisted Existing? Help Make the Difference!

A few months ago, I received an email from an elderly woman who told me I was sitting in an ivory tower and the advice I had given her about an assisted-living facility wasn't a help. I just didn't have a clue.

My response was, "Mom give me a break!"

I spend a lot of time speaking to management, staff and residents of many assisted-living facilities. I spend quite a bit of time when I am visiting trying to observe as much as possible from all perspectives.

But in this particular case, my perspective apparently just didn't cut it.

So, after our tender exchange, I sat back and really thought about what my mom said, as well as my rationale for disagreeing with her opinion. When I really thought about it, I had to admit... maybe my mom was right. Surprisingly, my feelings had turned on just one, simple phrase she had said: "I visit."

Yes, I am just a visitor.

Regardless of the number of visits, was my perspective skewed by snapshot thinking vs. a continuous video running for 365 days? Was it realistic to truly get a good handle on the experience of a resident by just looking around and talking to people? Was I just a person on the outside looking in?

As it happens, I'm not alone in grappling with this situation. Several times a week, I receive queries from family caregivers on how to identify the best assisted-living facility for an elderly parent. Naturally, there's a basic checklist.

You should take into account:

• Staff-to-patient ratios
• On-premise medical resources
• Local hospital affiliations
• Acute care capability
• Your loved one's health needs compared to facility's resources
• The complete physical facility including rooms
• The past month of food menus and activities schedule
• Proximity to your family
• The financial condition of the business (please remember it is a business)
• Costs and insurance acceptance.

Obviously, this type of information is essential. But, in evaluating my situation, maybe these essentials became too practical, too clinical. By putting the primary emphasis on the general quality of the staff and physical facility, I just wasn't seeing it through my mom's eyes and soul. I was neglecting something even more basic: her emotional well-being. Even though health issues make it a necessity for someone to live in an assisted-living center, many residents still have a very active mind and spirit, which is critical to nurture.

A wonderful professor from the University of Michigan, Dr. Sara Konrath, recently worked on a project with my magazine, Caring Today. Dr. Konrath was addressing issues regarding empathy and family caregivers and raised a point about working to understand the "dreams" of the loved one in your care. This message hit me right between the eyes.

I must admit I had forgotten to think about my mom's dreams because I focused on her immediate medical and physical health needs. But let's be honest. How many of us consider our loved one's dreams and aspirations when they are struggling, health-wise? My bet is not many. But, it's not something to get defensive about. We didn't do anything wrong. Most caregivers just equate well-being to safety. Everything else is a plus.

So, how to proceed, you ask? Well, if you are in the process of selecting an assisted-living facility, expand your investigation and really dig into the social programs being offered. Are they designed to truly add to a person's life? Are they stimulating and engaging? Or are they just given to past the time of day?

Personally, I don't consider a bus trip to the local A&P or Walgreens (no offense to either business) a day out. Nor do I think sitting in a recreation room playing bingo for the 100th time something to look forward to. Ditto, a whole day under a shady tree.

So search for a facility whose philosophy helps its residents find a life purpose. Find one that offers the right programs and allocates the necessary resources to bring that about. Look for a staff with the mindset that can facilitate it. You do not want to find a holding place for a loved one who has a desire to still engage and grow.

As family caregivers, our goal, and indeed that of the assisted living center we've entrusted our loved ones, is to emphasize a person's "life purpose." It is not the magnitude of the activity but the meaningfulness and sense of contribution that it delivers. It is the difference between living and existing.

In recent years, studies have been conducted to help determine if there are personal benefits when residents of assisted-living and nursing home centers participated in "reading to children" programs with local elementary schools. The largest study, covering three years, was conducted by Stephanie Gfeller at Kansas State University. It showed that both children and seniors can benefit from these intergenerational programs. In this case, children developed academically and showed increased social skills while their senior helpers experienced mood enhancements and felt a sense of value and purpose. Seniors spoke of "feeling needed, which pushed them to work to recover more quickly from illness." That is the goal.

Atrophy of soul is the worst type of deterioration. Without a healthy spirit, little else matters. If we pay attention to this, we can really help a loved one have a rebirth rather than a mere existence. Does this take a bit of extra effort for family caregivers and assisted living administrators? Of course! But our senior citizens who have contributed a great deal deserve this opportunity if they desire it.

So, whether you're looking into an assisted-living center for your loved one or your loved one is already a resident, listen to their dreams and let them know that it's important to have them. And make sure that they are in an environment where they believe their dreams and personal growth can be realized... because they can.

Help Yourself. Help Others.

For more by Victor Imbimbo, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.