Jennifer Fazekes, of Cohen Florence Levine Estates, leads a tour.

Make sure to do your homework to find the right senior living community



Make sure to do your homework to find the right senior living community

Jennifer Fazekes, of Cohen Florence Levine Estates, leads a tour.

A few years ago when Elaine Lerman decided it was time to consider assisted living, she had a lot of questions. Lerman, 67, has rheumatoid arthritis and had fallen multiple times in her Malden apartment, which had a lot of stairs. Her husband Leslie, 74, has chronic leukemia.

“Would we get the help that we needed? Would we have plenty of choices for meals?” wondered Lerman, for whom cooking had become arduous. “And I wanted to know, if I’m not feeling up to going to my kids for the Seder, would there be something for me to do here?”

Four years later, Lerman is happily enjoying community Seders, abundant kosher meals, and more at Cohen Florence Levine Estates in Chelsea, one of several senior communities operated by the nonprofit Chelsea Jewish Life Care. She and a new friend started an after-dinner knitting group. Leslie, who came to assisted living “kicking and screaming,” is now happily organizing the community’s 1,600-title film library.

“I feel so grateful to be here,” Lerman said.

Cohen Florence Levine Estates resident Elaine Lerman.

Thousands of Jewish seniors each year move into senior living communities and, like Lerman, they all wonder about everything from prices to dinner options and whether they can bring the family pet. The evolving landscape of senior living can be confusing, with ambiguous terminology and a plethora of choices. So experts advise making a list of questions to ask, then taking a careful tour of any prospective home.

To begin with, it helps to understand the typical offerings at senior communities. These include independent living units, which are just what they sound like; assisted living, whose definition varies from state to state, but which generally offers meals, housekeeping, and non-medical help with daily activities like buttoning shirts; memory care, designed for people with dementia; and skilled nursing, which is long-term, medically supervised care. Costs typically run from $5,000 to $10,000 monthly, varying by location and level of care.

“Make sure you understand what’s included in the rates and the care you’d receive,” advised Ted Doyle, vice president of marketing and communications for Norwood-based LCB Senior Living, which manages 34 communities throughout the Northeast.

Many people are attracted to senior communities because of the options for greater care if they should someday need it, but be aware that every model works slightly differently. “At LCB, we’ve got five levels of care,” Doyle explained. “So you can live independently, then become an assisted living resident, and add on incrementally as you need it – as opposed to paying for all of it and not necessarily needing it.”

Jennifer Hastings, vice president of marketing at Burlington-based Northbridge Companies, advised starting with two lists. “Think of at least two or three ways you’d hope for a positive change in your lifestyle, and two or three things you’d hope wouldn’t change with a move,” counseled Hastings, who works with Northbridge’s 19 for-profit New England communities.

At Benchmark Senior Living, a Waltham-based for-profit, Senior Vice President Bob Moran also advised starting with a list of needs. “Try to understand where you fit in, and whether a given community offers that,” he said. “Make sure to ask about any additional charges or fees for services you may care about.”

For couples considering a move together, David Calnan advised asking whether a community can handle each person’s needs. “A lot of communities basically will say either you’re independent or you’re not. And if you’re not, you’re either looking at assisted living or skilled nursing,” explained Calnan, the senior resident adviser at Orchard Cove in Canton, one of six nonprofit communities operated by Hebrew SeniorLife. “At Orchard Cove, we’ve specialized in dealing with couples with varying care needs. So a couple can move into independent or assisted living, and fill in with the services that are needed.”

Experts also advise familiarizing yourself with the pros and cons of community ownership models. “You should know who’s the parent company of this organization, how long they’ve been in business, and how many communities they have,” said Doyle. Larger entities may offer greater stability, a wider range of services, and medical partnerships. Smaller or nonprofit communities may offer subsidized housing or invest more directly in care. But all of this varies widely, and generalities often don’t hold.

When considering Jewish-affiliated communities, prospective residents frequently wonder: How Jewish is it?

“There’s a lot more diversity with the baby boomers than there was 20 years ago,” observed Calnan. Families that are intermarried, or are LGBTQIA+ may wonder if they’ll feel comfortable. “I generally will explain that at Orchard Cove, it’s pretty much what you’ll find in communities around the Boston area,” he noted. That translates into a small group for Shabbat services, and a much larger group for the High Holidays and cultural events.

Kosher cuisine is often a priority for people who consider Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, according to spokeswoman Debbie Weisberg. “That’s one of the things that sets us apart, because not many communities offer it,” she noted. “But another thing that sets us apart from the competition is that we have very little staff turnover – it’s more like a family.”

Every expert interviewed emphasized the importance of staff longevity as a measure of overall climate in a community. “When you’re touring, do residents look engaged, clean, and happy?” said Doyle. “Does the staff just walk past them, or do they say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ Those little interactions tell you so much about the culture of the place.”

Doyle encouraged talking directly to residents: “You’ll get the straight scoop.” Similarly, he advised visitors to decline the official tour lunch, and instead opt for a spontaneous meal with residents. “You’ll get the real meal that people actually eat,” he pointed out. “Also, ask whether dining is restricted to certain hours.”

Weisberg hears from a lot of children of prospective residents, and their top concern is often socialization. “They’ll ask, “How do you meet people? Who’s mom going to sit with at lunch?’” Weisberg recalled. At Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, staff gets to know incoming residents ahead of time, placing them at what they hope will be a compatible table and introducing them to new neighbors. “It’s not like the first day of school,” Weisberg laughed.

And it’s not like the bygone model of nursing homes, “where it was bingo all day, a VCR tape plugged in with World War II in color,” said Doyle. He advised touring visitors to ask for a monthly event calendar; a well-run community has plenty to keep members socially and intellectually stimulated, from book clubs and tai chi to Israeli dancing and pottery class. “A person moving into a community like this is spending upwards of $6,500 a month – that’s a lot of money,” Doyle pointed out. “These are people accustomed to travel, nice experiences, culture.”

That’s why, at Benchmark’s 64 communities throughout the Northeast, Moran gets a lot of questions about recreational and cultural excursions. “People want to know that they’re going to get out and do more than just go to CVS,” he noted.

Finally, seniors should ask about bringing anything they just can’t live without to their new home. Moran once had to tell a prospective resident he couldn’t bring his hookah, or any other smoking device. But plenty of communities nowadays allow Fifi and Fido. In Chelsea, Weisberg accommodated a woman who refused to move in without her piano.

“She’d play every day, and residents would come and listen,” Weisberg recalled. “She wasn’t moving in without it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Jewish Journal is reader supported

Jewish Journal is reader supported

Jewish Journal