How to shop for assisted living

Thomas Cassidy considers assisted living a "very attractive" option. "It allows people who are relatively healthy an opportunity to receive some assistance but still not to have the care you would need at a nursing home," he says.

Yet Mr. Cassidy, author of "Elder Care: What to Look For, What to Look Out For" (New Horizon Press, 1997), also cautions that assisted living is not a highly regulated industry. Some states have no regulations at all. For that reason, he says, people need to do "a little more homework and research before they make a commitment, because they can't rely on government regulators."

To make that research easier, Cassidy and other retirement-housing specialists offer these suggestions:

*Think about proximity to family. Relatives can be a big support. Out-of-town family members who want to help in choosing retirement housing can call the Elder Care Locator (800-677-1116), a service of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

*On an initial visit to a facility, stop in without advance notice and observe residents to see if they appear content. Sometimes it's good to go at meal time. See if the meals are appetizing. Is the staff friendly and pleasant? Is the residence clean?

*Find out how many meals are provided each week and when they are served. Is seating assigned? Must residents dress up to eat in the dining room?

*Determine how much assistance, if any, is included in the monthly fee. What is the cost when a resident wants more help?

*Learn what kind of activities are provided. What about transportation to supermarkets, shopping malls, and events?

*Be clear about the buy-back or refund policy if a resident wants to move.

*Have an attorney review the contract before you sign any agreement, so you know your responsibilities.

Ruth Harriet Jacobs, a gerontologist in Wellesley, Mass., offers other tips for making a successful move. "Look on a move as a new beginning, not an end," she says. "Be open and flexible. Keep up your old connections. Take initiative. And have a sense of humor."

For adult children, finding a good place for parents to live does not mean the end of active involvement. "You still have a responsibility to them after they move," says Richard Patton of Pasadena, Calif., whose father-in-law lives in an assisted-living center. In addition to visiting their parents, adult children can serve as their advocates, if necessary. "When there are problems, a lot of elderly people won't fight back," says Mr. Patton. Adds Dr. Jacobs, "Women who were brought up to be ladies - they're passive."

Assisted living, Cassidy says, offers "so much potential for quality of life for older people, but like anything you have to be careful. You can't assume that because it's an appealing alternative, you don't have to do your research. You do. Any quality facility will expect that, because they know they're going to look very good."

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