The Importance Of Senior Living In A Healthy Aging Plan
By Sandra Gordon
As we age, we can acquire health and physical issues that can impact our ability to live independently. In such situations, living at home—especially alone—might not be the safest option. Fortunately, planning ahead for a more suitable living environment can boost their overall quality of life. Read on to learn more about how various forms of senior living can fit positively into a balanced future and the importance of assisted living planning for a smart and healthy aging plan.
What Is Senior Living?
Senior living is a common, albeit outdated, term used to describe living environments designed for the specific needs of older adults. “Senior living allows older adults to continue to live and prosper in the safest, most appropriate environment based on their medical and physical capabilities and/or limitations,” says Ben Mandelbaum, CEO of Senior Planning Services in Lakewood, New Jersey. Some examples of specialized care housing options and facilities for older adults include (but aren’t limited to):
55+ residential communities for people ages 55 and older who have the option to live in separate apartments and typically have access to community activities and other amenities
Home care, which includes health care or supportive care from a professional caregiver in the space in which the older adult already lives
Assisted living facilities, which offer housing alternatives for those who may need help with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as eating, dressing or bathing, but don’t need the type of intensive medical care that a nursing home can provide. (Sometimes assisted living facilities are part of a retirement community and other types of senior housing complexes.)
Nursing homes that provide more intensive skilled nursing and medical care
What Is Healthy Aging?
Healthy aging is the ability to maintain an active, healthy, independent and purposeful life over the course of your lifetime. “To stay independent, you have to be proactive at home,” says Stephen Quaning, M.D., a geriatric medicine specialist with MetroHealth in Orlando, Florida. Such proactive behaviors include taking the necessary medications you’re prescribed to control chronic conditions, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, minimizing alcohol consumption, not smoking, getting enough sleep at night and staying socially active, all of which promote overall well-being and good health. Chronic and progressive diseases, such as diabetes and dementia, can impact activities of daily living, making it unsafe to remain at home, which is when senior living options can come into play. “Senior living can provide many benefits to a person who is dependent on care, from taking care of the daily chores of life to providing quality care and health services onsite,” says Kim Elliot, chief nursing officer at Brookdale Senior Living in Brentwood, Tennessee. “One of the biggest aspects that helps improve the quality of a resident’s life is the social aspect senior living communities can offer.”
The Social Benefits of Senior Living
At a senior living facility, older adults can make new friends and develop new relationships. “Residents may also be supported by caring professionals, which allows them to continue to grow and evolve in new and exciting ways at their own pace and desire,” says Elliot. A living environment for older adults, such as a 55+ residential complex, often offers social support and shared activities that can ease feelings of loneliness and reduce the burden on family caregivers. A small Netherlands-based survey in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests the main benefit of senior living is the social contacts and sense of belonging they provide. In fact, the researchers found senior living residents felt like they were “more than just neighbors.” Still, if someone is new to a community designed specifically for older adults, it might initially feel like middle school all over again, with cliques and conflicts to navigate. In the survey summary, researchers report that conflicts, disagreements and social exclusion remain part of community life, even among older adults.
Determining the Best Living Situation for Your Loved One
“The goal for most older people is to live at home as long as possible,” says Dr. Quaning. Even if they may benefit from the social interaction at a senior living facility, staying at home can feel ideal because it’s familiar and they likely already have an established routine in that space. If it’s safe for a person to age in place, try to help them find other ways to engage with their community, suggests Dr. Quaning. “I tell my patients who are aging in place to go out and engage with the young folks. You have a lot to teach them about the past and what you’ve experienced in life, and they have a lot to teach you about what’s going on in the present,” he says. For those who can’t or don’t want to age in place, a more independent and active style of senior living facility, such as a 55+ residential community, may be a logical next step for highly functioning older adults who want to live near others around the same age. These neighborhoods typically offer services and amenities beyond that of a typical apartment complex, such as housekeeping and organized social events. As a person’s health care needs evolve, assisted living is likely the logical progression from independent living. These residences provide support for adults who have difficulty with self-care, as well as those with declining health and/or physical abilities, all while helping them maintain their independence. An assisted living facility may provide meals, help with shopping, offer house or room cleaning services and provide assistance with medication management and/or scheduling doctor appointments. For people with memory issues and in need of assistance to perform activities of daily living (such as using the bathroom on their own), nursing home care is available. Nursing homes provide 24/7 hands-on assistance and supervision from licensed nurses, as well three meals a day.
How to Create a Healthy Aging Plan
Old age is the greatest risk factor for acquiring terminal diseases and disabilities, which is why it’s so important to develop a smart healthy aging plan in advance that prepares and supports loved ones to experience the best care and home environment when unexpected and serious health issues might arise. By doing so, you can help them maintain a valuable sense of control over their life. A healthy aging plan helps ensure a person’s ability to age safely and comfortably in the proper environment—especially as their needs change over time—which may include medical and physical care, mindful and social opportunities, engaging activities and a price suitable to their budget. It’s important to build this plan early and before there’s an urgent need to find assisted living care. Family members, caregivers and other responsible parties need to take time to plan for the future with their loved one, engaging them specifically in creating the plan.
Consider Personal Wishes
First things first: Does your loved one want to move to any type of senior living residence? If not, try not to force the issue—even if it’s likely in their best interest. To preserve the mental health and autonomy of the aging person, the decision should ultimately fall to them. “If your loved ones are mentally competent, they’re allowed to make mistakes,” says Dr. Quaning. “There’s only so much you can do.”
If your loved one is open to the idea of senior living, schedule tours of several facilities. “When exploring moving to a senior living community, most people are looking for a place that feels like home,” says Elliott. “[On these tours], engage with people who already live in the communities to get a sense of neighborliness with the residents, and engage with the care staff to gain a full understanding of the supportive care offered.”
List Health Conditions
The challenges of aging tend to grow over time, so it’s important to choose a setting where your loved one believes they can live well as these needs evolve. If your loved one is relatively healthy, a 55+ community may be suitable for quite some time. However, if they already have a complex medical condition, a nursing home may be a more appropriate choice.
Assess Physical Abilities
If your loved one is still able to navigate activities of daily living, such as feeding themselves and using the bathroom on their own, but they need support in other areas like taking medication as directed, house cleaning or preparing meals, an assisted living environment is likely the best fit. Their next housing option should be equipped to meet their current needs, as well as the next likely progression in their needs.
Plan in Advance
As previously mentioned, a healthy aging plan starts early. “If your loved one is independent and in good health by an advanced age, they probably chose a certain lifestyle that put them in a position to continue to be healthy,” says Dr. Quaning. Encourage them to maintain those behaviors in their later years, as well as adopt new ones that both motivate them and promote well-being.
When considering the inclusion of a senior living residence in your healthy aging plan, make sure to evaluate your finances as well. Room and board in such comprehensive care facilities are rarely covered by insurance (including Medicare), and only long-term nursing home care is covered by Medicaid for people who can’t otherwise afford it. Most older adults must tap into savings to pay for costs associated with senior assisted care living.
If your loved one is still working and generally healthy, consider discussing the benefits of long-term care insurance with them so they can enjoy even more senior living options later in life. “My wife and I are in our early 50s and we already started paying for long-term care insurance because we see what goes on with our patients,” says Dr. Quaning.
At the end of the day, it’s never too late to prepare a healthy aging plan. And the earlier you start, the better your quality of life will be when you do need assisted living care.