Ask the Right Questions, the Right Way

Now that the world is beginning to open up again (yay!), older adults and their loved ones in search of an assisted living community can once again conduct on-site visits and face-to-face interviews with staff. Virtual visits were surprisingly effective, but nothing compares to seeing firsthand what a community looks like, how caregivers interact with residents, and which apartments are available.

But finding the right fit is about more than having a few casual conversations and checking out the dining room and apartment options. A community may look nice, and the people in charge may seem fine and responsible. But if you don’t take specific steps to ask the right questions, it’s easy to overlook what matters most: understanding what the experience will be living there, receiving care, and working through problems and situations that inevitably arise.

Ask the Right Questions

We use (and coach our clients on the use of) “behavioral interviewing,” a time-tested method widely used by human resources professionals when interviewing job applicants. It is an extremely effective technique for gaining a more complete sense of what to expect from a particular community.

It’s based on a simple premise: past performance is the best predictor of future behavior. That means asking questions based on past situations to see how the other person responds. By asking questions in this way, you are more likely to get an honest glimpse into the capabilities and attitudes of the people to whom you will entrust your loved one’s care.

For example, a family member investigating an assisted living community may ask, “How does staff help new residents assimilate into the community culture?” The response may very well be reassuring, but asked in this way, it’s also likely to be vague and unspecific.

But if you phrase the same question in a different way (behavioral interviewing), you’ll get a more telling response:

“My mom is very shy. Can you describe for me some of the steps your team has taken recently to introduce a very shy new resident into the rhythm of daily life here?”


“Which group activity on your calendar is the most popular with people like my father who has no memory impairment? He is not very outgoing and will not likely be eager to join. Can you describe for me what techniques you have used successfully in getting people who are more reclusive to participate?”

These types of specific, situation-based questions require a more thoughtful answer – one that is based on actual events, not a practiced response – and will give you a much better feel for what the day-to-day experience of your loved one will be.

Ask the Right People

When you arrange an on-site visit, you’ll most likely be invited to meet with a marketing representative. This is the right place to start. Marketing or Community Relations will have the information you need and will act as your point person throughout the selection and move-in process (should it come to that).

Just don’t stop there. Once you establish an initial interest in a prospective community, ask the Marketing Director to introduce you to the managers who are directly involved in resident care. For that, you’ll want to speak with the Executive Director and/or Wellness Nurse, the people who set the culture and oversee all that happens on a daily basis.

Here as well, behavioral interviewing can help you get to the heart of things.

For example, we had a client whose father, due to a stroke, had aphasia, an inability to communicate through speech or written language. He didn’t have cognitive limitations, but he was unable to express his wishes. His daughter, however, could tell what he needed, whether it was that glass of water, to use the bathroom, or something else.

So, she asked the Executive Director, “When have you had another resident here with aphasia? How did you help that person successfully communicate their needs?” To her credit, the Director said, “I don’t know, but I can get you an answer.” She introduced her to a nursing assistant who demonstrated how using a picture board had allowed them to communicate with another resident with similar concerns.

Not only did the picture board answer give our client comfort about her dad’s limitations, the Executive Director’s willingness to say, “I don’t know but I will find out,” gave her comfort, too. It demonstrated that she was someone who was open, honest, and who relied on her staff to solve problems in real time. That’s an important predictor of how care will be provided and problems solved, since hiccups will undoubtedly occur along the way.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, it’s the not the facility itself in which you are most interested. Having “nice and friendly” staff is important, but what really matters most is the care provided and the lived experience of your loved ones in their new home.

Behavioral interviewing can be an important tool in uncovering complete answers to your most important questions and in helping to find the best fit when choosing a community.

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