The search for a retirement home can be daunting. But when the research is done, and the visits are made, finding the right place comes down to basic questions for the family and the older adult.


"You ask yourself, "¢Would I want to be here?' Would I be happy here?" says Laurie Petrie, communications director for the Council on Aging for Southwest Ohio.


In other words, experts say the search for a retirement community should be framed with the personality of the older adult in mind. For example, does the person prefer a cozier, smaller, quiet environment, or would a larger, bustling place chock full of activities be better? Consequently, the facility a person will be happiest in may not necessarily be the most fancy or expensive. It just needs to feel like home.


As Petrie puts it: "As best as you can, match the level of care you need with what the facility offers. Do the amenities suit your needs and interests?"


Social workers say, not surprisingly, one of the biggest mistakes families and seniors make is putting off a decision on assisted living so that a move becomes too rushed and stressful. Petrie points out that visiting, interviewing and researching retirement communities is time-consuming. Whenever possible, seniors and families need to make plans early to allow time to visit and explore various communities.


Petrie says even before the search begins, a family should be sure they have explored all possibilities for in-home care.


"People should be aware there is that option rather than instantly deciding they have to be in a facility," she says. "The mission of the Council on Aging is to encourage people to remain in home and community settings as long as they can. That is, of course, what most prefer."


While certainly not cheap, home care can still be less expensive in the long run, given the cost of assisted living and nursing care facilities, according to Petrie. Once the search is under way, families will find that retirement communities, from the more spartan to the luxurious, usually have one common thread these days "” activities. It has been perhaps the biggest change in retirement living in the last few decades.


"The level of activities available to residents are tenfold of what they were 25 years ago," says Rita Postolski, a social worker with 40 years of experience in senior care and the manager of assisted living at Cedar Village in Mason. "It used to be residents didn't get out of the facility much. That's now very different. Also, the level of care in terms of rehab facilities is remarkable. There has been a dramatic change."


A typical weekly activities list at a typical retirement community can include trips to the racetrack, art museum, playhouse or symphony. In-house activities abound that go well beyond the stereotypical bingo game, such as poker clubs, investment clubs or a Wii bowling league.


"There has been a recognition that just warehousing people is not good," says Petrie. "The whole residential care industry has taken that to heart. They have made their facilities more homelike, engaging the residents more and recognizing they are going to do better if they are active."


When touring a facility, Postolski advises soaking in the sights, smells and ambiance.


Her checklist includes: "Try the food, see the accommodations. Do they offer opportunities to get out? How often? What kind of choices can you make about eating? Do they have emergency call buttons? What is the access to doctors in the facility? What kind of checks is there on people not feeling well? Can you go take a walk? Are there places to walk?"


While policies may differ among the communities, Potolski says she does encourage people to drop by at least once without an appointment to "see if the residents are happy. Are they active, involved?"


Petrie says one of the best indicators of care is to watch how the staff treats the residents. "It is also a good idea to try to talk to the facility's long-term care ombudsman whose job is to advocate for the residents living there," she says. 


Experts say it is obviously a good idea, if possible, to seek a place with a continuum of care in case an assisted-living adult should need temporary or permanent nursing care. Also, a facility that offers physical therapy and has regular visits from specialists are huge pluses.


Petrie says that as a rule, there seems to be little difference in the quality of care between nonprofit or for-profit facilities. Since many nonprofit communities are faith-based, that may be a plus for a resident.


"Some of the faith-based nonprofits will have philanthropic funds to help residents who are in a facility and whose financial resources run out," Petrie says. "They are often interested in serving a diverse clientele as part of their mission."


Experts say there is no single go-to independent consumer ratings guide for those in the market for a retirement home. But here are a number of tools:

  • Ohio Department of Aging publishes a "Long-term Care Consumer Guide"
  • State of Ohio inspection reports are available, and
  • offers information, alternatives to nursing homes and information on every Medicare and Medicaid-certified nursing home in the country.