Jonathan Athanas, the Arbors at Dracut executive director, was recently reading the Boston Globe when he came across an article that perfectly encapsulated what he deals with at his assisted living and memory care community.
“Make the move too soon, and you lose an important part of yourself,” writes Beth Teitell in the Globe. “That’s one fear. But wait too long — until your physical or cognitive state has greatly deteriorated — and any place that’s not depressing won’t take you. That’s the other fear.”
Athanas says he sees too many families who say, “Oh, we’ll get through the winter, and then we’ll start searching.”
“They find a reason to push things off,” he says. “The reality is, people can enjoy the benefits of assisted living, but the longer you put off the move, the smaller and smaller that window of enjoyment gets. You don’t want to find yourself in a position where Mom slips at Christmas, breaks a hip and then assisted living is no longer an option. Then they have to go straight to skilled nursing.”
So when is the right time to visit an assisted living community?
Difficulty Managing Day-to-Day Activities
Is your dad telling you that he is eating, but you’re seeing food go bad in the refrigerator or have noticed a significant weight loss? Are they wearing the same clothes when you go to visit? When you look around the house, is it as neat and clean as it used to be? Your parent might be struggling with little things like mowing the lawn, feeding the dog, or watering the flowers – but those small things add up, and can be indicators that it’s time to plan a visit and explore your options.
“When those rudimentary tasks become a challenge, it’s the best time to visit an assisted living community for the first time,” Athanas says. “They still have their independence, so I’m nothing more than a landlord and they’re tenants. An assisted living community is basically an apartment building for seniors. They still have privacy. They have the flexibility to come and go as they please. They just have a helpful guiding hand when they need it, and families have peace of mind that the hand is there — and it doesn’t have to be theirs.
Declining Mental and/or Physical Health
For every reason families give for why they are delaying a move to senior living, Marty Sawyer, the Resident Care Director at The Ivy at Ellington Assisted Living, can give a reason for why it is the right time to visit an assisted living community. Although it may be different for every family, there are a few signs Sawyer recommends you watch for.
- Cognitive: If your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, whether due to Alzheimer’s or another dementia, Sawyer says you don’t want to wait until they are past the moderate stage. “Once you get past moderate, then it’s going to be a difficult transition,” Sawyer says.
- Physical: There are a lot of physical signs that it’s time to start exploring your assisted living options. “It could be when they start to fall at home,” Sawyer says. “Maybe it’s when you get an emergency call system installed at the house.”
Sawyer adds: “When you start to think about putting support in the home and when the doctors’ visits become more often, that’s when you want to start searching.”
Experiencing Social Isolation
Does your parent still drive? Or do they have alternate means of transportation? Do they have friends, or are they isolated from others most of the time? If you think your aging loved one goes days without leaving the house because they can no longer drive, is afraid to take public transportation alone or lacks a companion to come along, they might benefit from the social connections available through assisted living.
“We’re walking into the snowiest season,” Athanas says. “The days are shorter and colder. The snow starts falling. Mom and Dad aren’t getting out as much. Maybe you’re noticing signs of isolation.
“Instead,” he continues. “They could be in an assisted living community and get out by not going out. It’s an easy walk from the apartment to join the ladies for a cup of coffee in the afternoon or to play cribbage with the men at night.”
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
As an advocate for your parents, you want to ensure the best life possible for them as they age, which requires starting the search sooner rather than later.
“A lot of families react after an emergency situation occurs,” says Kim Stout, Reflections Memory Program Director at the Arbors at Dracut. “A medical emergency happens and their loved one can’t go home, but they’re not ready for nursing care.”
Then, not only are family caregivers overwhelmed and under pressure, but they’re also charged with the task of figuring everything out, from where their parents keep their legal documents to where their parents should receive long-term care.
Both Athanas and Stout highly recommend families be proactive, not reactive. Athanas offers an example: “One of my move-ins from October — she wanted this for herself. She was living with her daughter and was ready to be out from under her daughter and to have her own space. Now, when her daughter comes to visit, it’s enjoyable. They’re not talking about grocery shopping and who’s going to shovel the driveway. They’re enjoying quality time because we’re the primary caregivers now.”
If you’re looking for a hard-and-fast rule about the right time or age to start considering assisted living, you won’t find one.
But Jason Rieger, who has over 30 years of experience in senior living, says just about every family he’s worked with tells him that they wish they would have made the move to assisted living sooner.
“It’s never too early to explore assisted living. Becoming an educated shopper or consumer before you have an urgent need is a great thing to do. It’s harder to shop when you’re in crisis mode. You don’t have the time to be as thorough in your research.”