Steve Hearon was one of the first among his friends to go through it. It was eight years ago, and few in the baby boom generation had reached the point where their parents were getting too old to live alone.
But Hearon’s father was suffering from both Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, and Hearon’s mother, already in her late 70s, was having trouble caring for him. After six months of frequent trips to Portland to look after them, the 56-year-old Islander finally decided it was time to move his parents to Seattle, where he could set them up in an old folks’ home.
The task of finding the right place, though, was daunting.
“I was sort of touring facilities on my own, looking for things that would fit,” Hearon said. “But it seemed like every place I went, there were some things that worked, but other things were deal-breakers.”
He had some specific criteria. It had to be on the Eastside. It had to be wheelchair accessible and have the right parking arrangement. And the food had to be gourmet.
“My parents had lived a good life and this was not a time where I was going to have any compromises,” he said.
Hearon is representative of many in his generation who have high standards for their own quality of life and that of their rapidly aging parents. Thanks to advances in life expectancy, 71 percent of today’s boomers have at least one living parent, according to a 2005 Pew Research Center survey. The National Alliance for Caregiving estimates that one in six working adults cares for an elderly relative.
But that means that while the elderly are living longer, they are doing so with health conditions that require a higher level of maintenance. Navigating the world of elder care with a list of requirements that can range from late-stage Alzheimer’s care to Korean-speaking staff, often under pressure following an emergency such as a bad fall or stroke, can throw an adult child’s life into turmoil. Further issues such as geographical distance and financial constraints only add to the challenge.
Hearon felt he was wasting his time in a sea of options where he didn’t know what questions to ask or how to interpret the answers he got. After a couple of weeks of looking, he found Heidi Sheldon, a senior housing specialist (also referred to as a “placement coordinator”) who uses her intimate knowledge of local facilities to help families focus their searches.
Her Bellevue-based company, Options for Seniors, maintains contractual relationships with a network of nearly 700 elderly-housing facilities. Her staff regularly investigates and assesses each for its services, programs, cleanliness and performance on state surveys. Her services are free to clients because she is paid on commission by the housing facilities when she makes a placement.
“We have a relationship with these homes prior to bringing a family to them,” Sheldon said. “We understand what kind of family they’re looking for and we understand the client.”
She accompanies her clients on tours of homes and helps them ask the right questions and sort through finances and Medicare rules.
For Hearon, Sheldon narrowed the list down to four or five possibilities. The family quickly decided on Pacific Regent in Bellevue, an upscale independent living facility where his parents could live together in their own condominium with options for assisted care if it ever became necessary.
Sheldon’s services are one of several forms of available help that many people are not aware of. And as the Web-savvy boomer generation more often turns to the Internet to begin the search, service providers are responding. Sheldon launched a search engine on her Web site in October with local Eastside listings.
Launched around the same time was SNAPforSeniors, a national database based in Seattle that claims to be the only comprehensive online source of unbiased senior housing information. The Web site lists 65,000 housing providers in 50 states that are searchable by criteria including location, level of care, payment type, dietary options and languages spoken.
The Web site lists basic information on a facility for free. SNAP does not take a placement commission, which company co-president Eve Stern said is important in getting a clear picture of available options. But for a fee, facilities listed on SNAP can provide updated vacancy information and additional media such as photo or video tours.
Stern said their database is particularly useful to people who live far away from the senior they are trying to find a home for. And a number of partnerships with related organizations complement the starting point that SNAP provides with more personalized assistance. Swedish Medical Center, the Alzheimer’s Association of Western & Central Washington and the Chinese Information and Service Center are among those that have signed on to use SNAP as their exclusive listing source since the Web site’s official launch in early October.
The information call center staff at Senior Services, the largest non-profit agency for seniors in Washington state, uses SNAP as its starting point when responding to phone requests for housing options. “They can start there and then (Information & Assistance) staff helps guide them more, give them direct questions to ask of a facility and figure out how payment is going to work,” said Terra McCaffree, Senior Housing information services manager.
Senior Services, which also runs a dozen programs including Meals on Wheels, transportation and home repair services for 50,000 people a year, follows up with multiple calls and visits to make sure that their callers have gotten their needs met.
Hearon had never heard of any of these services when he began seeking a place for his parents to live. Sheldon said that is one of her biggest challenges - making sure that people know that there are resources out there that can make a very stressful process significantly easier to handle.
Senior housing advocates say just after the holidays is a typical period of increased interest in senior housing options, when families have been spending more time together and have had an opportunity to take stock of how their elderly relatives are doing.
Sheldon’s advice is to pay attention to that time together and act on it early. “Don’t wait until a crisis,” she said. “If you do, the choices will be fewer and it will cost you more.”
SENIOR HOUSING RESOURCES
(206) 448-3110 or toll free in Wash.: 1-888-435-3377
Options for Seniors
A Place for Mom
Based in Seattle; the country’s largest eldercare referral service
National call center that will route any individual in the country to the appropriate information and assistance service
Overlake Hospital Medical Center Senior Care Program
Offers a variety of senior resources and referrals
TYPES OF SENIOR HOUSING
Organized communities without personal or medical care. Recreation programs, social and enrichment activities and field trips are offered. Optional meal plans are usually available.
For those who are no longer able to live alone safely but enjoy some autonomy. Staff is on-site 24 hours a day and provides assistance with ADLs and medication. Group meals. Limited licensed nursing, some have specialty focus.
Skilled Nursing Facilities
A facility staffed with 24-hour licensed nursing to provide care for frail elderly who require medical, psychological and personal care. Residents typically share a room; group meals unless they are too ill. Some have special units for Alzheimer’s and short-term rehab stays.
Adult Family Homes
A private home-like setting typically in residential areas who serve a limited number of residents. Care is provided by live-in caregivers. Group meals, help with ADLs and nursing can be provided. (Also referred to as group home, personal home care, board and care home, adult foster care, residential care.)
Continuing Care Retirement Center (CCRCs)
Referred to as Life Care Communities. Campus offers living choices from private homes to assisted living to skilled nursing. Residents can age in place without having to relocate.