More Than a Checklist: Touring a Senior Living Community with 2Sisters Senior Living Advisors

Touring a senior living community can be an overwhelming experience, so many families use a “Community Checklist” they have found online. The problem is, they get so busy checking things off the list they don’t really take in the entire experience and end up overlooking small but telling details. We call it “tour tunnel vision”. When 2Sisters Senior Living Advisors tours a senior living community, we use a unique combination of experience driven instincts and well-honed senses to find the best client-community matches.

Agnes and her husband Chuck are a perfect example. In their mid-seventies and living on Boston’s South Shore, Agnes enjoys playing bridge while Chuck prefers to relax watching baseball with his friends. Chuck is starting to need some help dressing, and Agnes does not want to cook and clean every day. Together, they decided assisted living was their best option.

On their first tour, their daughter brought along a checklist she had downloaded that had over 100 questions on it; some were pertinent, but others had no relevance to their particular assisted living needs. They found that some of their own questions got answered, while most did not. By the end of the tour, the family was so overwhelmed with new information that they could not retain it all.

They came to us for help and we took them through a few more communities, using their needs as a filter to ask the right questions, using our experience and instincts to analyze the communities. After each visit, we gave the family a complete recap to help them remember details.

Using all the senses:

When we tour, we do more than look, we use all our senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste and that important sixth sense, our gut reaction. We don’t just tour a facility, we evaluate the entire community.


Visual analysis is extremely important. As soon as we get out of our cars, we take note of the building’s landscaping and maintenance. Is the grass cut? Are there cigarette butts all over the parking lot? Bugs in the light fixtures? We never judge a book by its cover, but reviewing a community’s outside appearance can give us a clue about attention to detail.

Inside, take note of the decor: does it match your preference? In the model unit, don’t be dazzled by the furniture, look to see if it’s freshly painted and if there are stains on the carpet. Is the bathroom grout clean or grimy? Remember, upkeep and maintenance doesn’t get any better than the model unit. Ask to see an available unit if possible.

While we consider a community’s physical appearance, the most important factor in making a recommendation is the well-being of residents. Recently, while touring an assisted living facility, we saw a resident who didn’t have matching clothes on. In addition, her slip was showing and it had a stain. To us those are potential signs she’s not being well taken care of. We also look at residents’ shoelaces: untied shoelaces may lead to dangerous accidents and falls. A well-trained staff will be prepared to spot these problems and either prevent or resolve them.

Staff appearance is important to notice too. Do they wear scrubs, casual attire, or uniforms? Senior living community employees who wear uniforms tend to have more professional attitudes, while scrubs set a more clinical vibe. Everybody is different; some may have a preference to a more formal community. Other residents enjoy more casual settings.

Health and well-being are top priorities, but activities are important too. We always note activities calendars: are they updated and from the right month? Is there more than one option available at a time? We will generally try to observe an activity during a tour to see if they’re well-attended and if residents are actively engaged or just zoning out.


Our experience shows paying attention to our sense of smell is essential in finding the highest quality senior living communities. As soon as we walk through the door, we take a deep breath. In some cases, we get an overpowering combination of flowers and disinfectant. This is a red flag. Communities that cannot keep up with residents’ continence care needs may use more deodorizers and potpourris to mask odor. And when near the dining area, we note the smell of the food. Does it smell appetizing? Food is a major ingredient in resident satisfaction.


We always recommend touring during a mealtime and sampling meals when possible. Visitors should find the meals both tasty and nutritious. And since dining styles vary among communities, from restaurant style to buffet to cafeteria style, make sure the communities’ style matches your preference. Check if there many menu options, and if they fit your dietary needs (ex. vegetarian, low salt, gluten free).

Resident interaction during meals is also important. Are people eating in silence? Do members come up to talk to you, or invite you to sit down and eat with them? A friendly, welcoming community is the easiest kind for new residents to feel most at home.

Other food options worth noting are the availability of snacks. Does the dining area put fruit out? Is it ripe, and ready to eat? Are the stickers still on? Considering a community’s dining options is an essential step in selecting a new home.


A new home should feel like home! When in the dining room, we are sure to check the tables’ place settings: are they using paper and plastic or is it glassware? We check to see if the tables are clean or sticky. Clean tables prevent bacteria and germs from spreading to other parts of the community, helping keep residents healthy and happy.

Are the chairs in the common areas comfortable? We encourage prospective residents to sit in common area chairs. Are chairs easy to get in and out of or will residents need help getting up from a staff member? Can they envision sitting in these chairs after dinner? We often explain to families touring a community that common areas compare to a resident’s living room, while their apartment is more like their bedroom.

In addition, we always use a senior living facility’s elevator. Look closely at the buttons: are the numbers worn off or broken from use? This could be a sign of a lack of maintenance and renovations. Do the buttons and metal plate have fingerprints and smudges, and are they sticky? This can be a sign of an absent disinfection process which can lead to spreading germs and viruses.


Senior living communities always have a residents’ resonance! Do residents talk amongst themselves in the hallways and elevators? Do they seem happy and content? Have a conversation with them, and see if they are happy with their surroundings.

Listen for interaction between a resident and a staff member: kindness and a consideration for dignity is a vital factor. Are staff too rushed to stop and talk to residents? Can you hear walkie-talkie chatter? Do staff members stand over residents in wheelchairs, or do they kneel down to eye level to talk to them? A great facility will train staff members in these small but important details.

Sensory overload is a very real issue in some senior living communities. If a community is too loud due to activities, chatter, television and radio, a resident might feel overwhelmed, and excessive noise can lead to confusion. By listening to the crescendo of a community, visitors can get a unique perspective on life at a given location.

Sixth Sense – Gut Check:

When touring, pay attention to your gut reaction, it’s often spot-on. If something doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t put your finger on it, ask about it. Ask to meet with the Executive Director or Nurse to further your impressions. The Executive Directors and Nurses are the people that help form the community; they will be able to answer questions and address concerns.

Touring takeaway:

By using our instincts and asking questions that were pertinent to their needs, Agnes and Chuck’s tours were more complete, without any information overload. And when they had a question later, they could call us and rely on our memories for answers.

In the end, we recommended an assisted living community in Quincy, MA for Agnes and Chuck, one they may have overlooked if they had relied solely on their checklist. It was a great fit not only because of the care and location, but because it offered a bridge group that plays three times a week and a pub that shows all the Red Sox games. And a great fit between resident and community is a happy ending for everyone.

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