How to Start the Search for a Senior Home

Moving into a senior home is a big decision for everyone. And for those living with dementia, the need for a transition can come up quicker than anyone is prepared for.

But where do you even start? In the beginning of my search for a senior home for my Mom, I found 3 helpful ways to start: Researching on my own, talking to friends and neighbors, and ultimately, using a senior housing advisor to help me narrow down the choices and tour them in-person.

Start researching before you need it

I knew I wanted to have at least a rough idea in place of where my Mom - who lives with Alzheimer's disease - might be able to go in case of injury or a sudden progression of the disease. So I jumped in and started researching on my own.

If you live in a small town, the decision might be simplified if there are only one or 2 options for a senior home. But maybe those options won't work for your loved one and you need to look in a different area. Or maybe, like in a larger city, you have so many options that you don't even know where to begin.

I started with books about what people with dementia specifically need in a senior home. Our state's Aging and Adult Services has many online resources and I checked them all out. These gave me a very basic idea of what types of housing are out there for seniors living with dementia and what features we might like or need.

Proximity was a top priority for me. As a busy mom of 3, I knew we would need to be close so we could visit often. So I focused only on places nearby our home. I read online reviews from families, residents, and former staff. But I still felt like I was only getting the shiny brochure version of what was out there and I wanted the real story.

Enlist the help of family and friends

The next step was to talk to family and friends. Word-of-mouth can be the most important recommendation both in favor of a place and to warn us away from places others didn't have good experiences with.

I heard from fellow caregivers and other families, and got their opinions. The generic names of facilities started to form personalities as I learned more about the different culture and feel of each residence.

Some had great facilities for those living with dementia, but when an issue broke out between residents, my caregiver friend didn't like how the staff handled it. Others were shiny and brand-new with great options for people living with dementia, but had a rotating door of staff.

Some people can make a confident decision based on a recommendation from a friend or family member. I got some great information this way, but it was still pretty limited. I wanted a more well-rounded picture of what was available for my Mom.

If you can, use a senior housing expert

If you still don't have a good idea of where to start, it might be time to enlist an expert. My support group leader told me about a senior housing expert who had helped many other caregivers in the area find the perfect fit for their loved one with dementia. It was the final boost of help that I needed to make a decision.

Senior housing experts serve clients and families who are overwhelmed by the many facilities and options. They are like travel agents or insurance brokers. They help you find the right senior housing fit for your needs and know everything about the business. Their services are usually free because they are paid through referral fees by the agencies themselves. They might only be useful in larger cities, but it's worth asking around to see if any are in your area.

Why use an expert?

They are in and out of the buildings regularly and get a good feel for the different cultures by being there at different times of day and with different staff. Good ones will be unbiased and objective and tell you what's really going on. This allows them to help you find a place that is the best fit for you and your loved one.

My expert knew which places changed management recently and told me which home was a favorite of outside nursing staff (who also see all the different homes during their rounds). Experts can compare and contrast the services offered and help you wade through the dizzying details and choices. They also provide compassion and support when you're making such a big decision for your loved one.

Take an in-person tour of potential homes

With the expert's help, I did a wide-sweeping search of the best housing options in our area and narrowed down the most important features that my Mom needed and wanted.

I wanted my mom to have lots of activity and opportunities to get out of the building, options to get more help as her disease progresses, and a generally caring and positive environment.

Then I spent an entire day touring 3 homes with only the advisor first, so as not to overwhelm Mom with the many options. My advisor helped me think of specific questions to ask each facility, and helped me stay focused when I was emotionally overwhelmed. You can also find detailed lists of questions to ask on these tours from the Alzheimer's Association.

Going into the actual buildings is very important - an online tour is not enough. I wanted to smell, touch, and experience the place where my loved one might live every day. I got to hear the conversations between the staff and the residents, see how everyone interacted, get a feel for the building - and ultimately that helped greatly with my decision.

Once I had narrowed down my favorite, we brought Mom along for a tour and the senior housing expert came too.

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Have a housing option in your back pocket

Having a next option in your back pocket is an important part of dementia caregiving because the timeline is so unpredictable. The disease can suddenly change and maybe your loved one needs a different living situation.

For my family, this exact scenario happened. Our timeline was fast-tracked because Mom took a few falls and was injured. Thankfully, I had been thinking about this possibility and had been lining up the steps I would need to take just before these injuries happened. I was grateful that when Mom needed it, I could confidently suggest a place that would fit her needs and personality.

Somehow I predicted pretty well what my Mom would like in a senior home, and she has settled in and is happy. She's made a lot of friends and is happy to have some independence, but also plenty of socializing with peers.

I could never pick a place that is perfect or exactly like her former home. But I am grateful for the help along the way to find a really good senior home for my Mom.

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