Finding a senior living community for your parent or loved one can feel overwhelming. Senior living review and referral sites offer online directories and phone advisors. They promise a personalized approach, easy searching and comprehensive support. You can search from the comfort of home without endlessly calling and emailing communities. And these review sites claim you can get objective information from people who have toured and lived in the communities.
Or can you?
Senior living review sites are a good place to begin your recommendations, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of senior living research. And if you get your information only from these sites, you’ll be getting a skewed and incomplete picture. That’s because these companies often have a financial incentive to refer you to the businesses that pay them for listings.
How do senior living review sites work?
While it may seem like directories, also called referral sites, have a wealth of information in one spot, they often don’t show you the whole picture. In fact, they often take a commission if you choose a community through them.
According to Chicago-based senior living advisor Andrea Donovan, these referral fees could amount to thousands of dollars in the Chicago area. This means that these senior living review sites have a vested interest in placing your parent in a community that will pay them a referral fee — not necessarily finding a community that will be a great cultural fit or in which your parent or loved one will be happy for the rest of their life.
Donovan’s company, Andrea Donovan Senior Living Advisors, isn’t compensated by any of the senior living communities it presents to families.
What’s more, these directories benefit from Google’s algorithm. They’re at the top of Google search listings not because they offer the most valuable or reliable information but because these nationwide review sites garner a large number of clicks, increasing their visibility within Google.
Moreover, these companies do not necessarily offer the full picture. Not all positive or negative reviews make it onto the site. They may not include senior living communities that don’t pay their fees either. This could exclude a community that’s a great fit.
“Referral sites are a great place to start your research,” Suzanne Nagel, vice president of marketing at HumanGood, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit providers of housing for older adults, said. “But it should only be a start. Find a community, contact them directly, then visit them in person.”
Giving your contact information to a referral site and working with an online advisor often means you’ll receive frequent phone calls from the referral service as well as the senior communities they work with, Nagel said. Cut out the middle person and speak directly with the communities you’re interested in. Phone calls and emails may take more time, but you’ll usually get the most reliable information from a real person, not online.
Donovan noted that individual community websites are often missing important information, including pricing. “I can count on one hand the number of places that actually list their pricing,” she said.
It may seem counterintuitive when so much other information is available, but many times, fees vary greatly by level of care, size of living space and other variables.
Many cross a community off the list, assuming that it’s too expensive. Yet experts at individual communities are often able to work with families to make a move possible.
The other very important piece of information you can’t glean from any website, she said, is the quality of a community’s food. In many communities, food is an important part of socializing, and many people eat most, if not all, of their meals in a communal dining room. “I always tell people to eat the food before they sign on the dotted line,” she said. “If the food is bad, it could ruin the experience of living there.”
Think outside the amenities.
Searching strictly online often narrows your focus to aesthetics, Jay Cortez, founder and CEO of Room and Residence, a navigation service in Highland Park, Texas, said. What you should focus on first is the type and level of care your parent will receive and whether the community meets their needs in terms of engagement, connection and happiness.
The other element that doesn’t come across online is how a community feels. Are the people friendly? Is it a religious group of people? Are there events that your loved one would actually be interested in, and are they well attended? Remember, while this decision is about care, happiness and health are closely linked.
Get offline and visit.
While reading online reviews of senior living communities can provide some helpful information, don’t give the opinions of reviewers too much weight, Nagel said.
“You have to keep reviews in the appropriate context,” she said. “People who review generally have strong opinions. They’re either extremely enthusiastic or very disparaging. Use reviews to identify any questions or concerns you may have, but ultimately, you are the best judge of which community is right for your family member.”
So, begin your search online, cautiously read the reviews to gather any questions, and then visit the communities you like. Consider whether the community is consistent with the reviews you have read on senior living review sites or in stark contrast to them.
When you’re there, don’t just talk to the sales team. Talk to the people in charge of health and wellness, events and dining. Eat a meal, and visit at different times of the day. Be sure to talk to the residents themselves — many will be happy to share their experiences. “They have the truest picture of what life there is really like,” Nagel said.
To get the most out of the visit, consider attending a community event or going during a meal or other active time. This gives the most comprehensive view of community life. And be sure to take your loved one, so they can talk to other residents and assess how they feel about the community too.
Choosing a senior living community for your parent or loved one is an incredibly important decision — one that requires your due diligence. But don’t go overboard either, Cortez cautioned.
After you’ve done your homework, get out there. “Tour only your top three choices. Anything beyond that is a waste of time,” he said. “Know the specific criteria you’re looking for, then trust your instincts.”
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