By Eustace D. Theodore, PhD
Over the last decade it has been my pleasure to talk with a number of seniors and family members as they make an important decision - the decision about the "right" retirement community either for themselves or for their loved ones. While there is no "right" community for every individual, paying attention to certain common factors often leads to what seniors ultimately believe is the best outcome. As an academic interested in how people make important decisions in their lives, I hope it will be helpful to your decision making process to have a check-list of factors that produce long-term satisfaction. Interestingly, the questions and the "right" answers are not always obvious!
Many communities are owned and managed by companies that fail to track the needs of today's seniors. Quality of the fit and fixtures in a community deteriorate over time; long-term satisfaction is found in communities that evidence ongoing renovation and rehabilitation. Is there clear evidence of ongoing investment by the owners of the community in the physical plant? Is the physical environment improving or deteriorating?
Initially prospective residents tend to focus on the size or style of individual residences. Once they move in, however, residents learn that satisfaction is as much related to the quality of the common areas of the community and the life that goes on there. Are common areas set up to support an interesting life-style? Are the corridors wide and welcoming? Does the building have obvious ways of supporting connections between residents, connections that lead to meaningful friendships? Is the building well-designed in general?
In many cases, government officials leave some life safety issues up to the individual owners of senior residences. Therefore attention to questions of fire emergency, for example, must be asked. Does the building have a sprinkler system? Is there an emergency plan? Positive answers to these questions are an indication that owners put the welfare of residents first in life safety and, most likely in other less obvious ways.
Initially seniors believe that closeness to their old neighborhood or to family is essential - the closer the better. But over time seniors begin to realize that what is crucial to their happiness is easy access to major transportation routes, highways that connect throughout the community and make it easy for friends and relatives to visit - and for them to continue to be connected to all areas of the city and county. How convenient is the community to major highways and travel corridors? What is the connection between the community and the local cultural institutions? Proximity to medical centers is often an important factor that is overlooked. Sometimes, minutes do matter.
Owners of senior residential communities operate under varying missions - indeed there are considerable differences in terms of how much the mission is known and part of each employee's day to day activity. Resident satisfaction is directly linked to the degree to which the company's mission attends to the needs of residents. Is the mission focused on the welfare of residents? Is the mission known by employees? Does the day to day activity in the community reflect the mission?