Expert on aging offers tips on what to look for when choosing a nursing home

Gayle Doll

Gayle Doll

Moving a parent or loved one into a nursing home or assisted living facility can be difficult. Even more difficult can be choosing a location.

Gayle Doll, assistant professor in Kansas State University’s College of Human Ecology and director of the Center on Aging, offers the following advice on finding a quality nursing home:

* Check the online reviews. A website like is frequently a good place to begin, Doll said. “Take these ratings with a grain of salt,” she said. “Five star-rated homes are meant to be the best, but may be a reflection of the type of residents in the home. Likewise, low ratings may be caused by a temporary problem. Try to review past ratings for a history to be sure.”

* Look at the staffing-to-resident ratio. The more staff a facility has the more likely it is that the residents will have opportunities for interaction throughout the day. “Nursing homes are all about the relationships,” Doll said. “It does not make a lot of difference how visually appealing the building looks if there is little or no community environment inside for residents to make meaningful relationships.”

* Perform a sniff test during a random visit. If the home smells good, then residents are most likely properly cared for and treated well, Doll said. She also recommended avoiding meal times to perform the test, as food could mask smells.

* See how privacy of residents is handled. Are there places residents can go to be alone? Do staff members knock before entering a room? How does the home view residents’ sexuality?

* Observe how staff handles breakfast. If caretakers wake residents room by room, it means that residents are not getting to sleep in as long as they want, Doll said. “It also means that the nursing home doesn’t have flexible hours for meals and is still very traditional in many aspects,” she said. “A really good home will have flexible meal hours so residents can set their own schedules and have freedom to decide what they want to do in their daily routine.”

* Visit the nursing home on the weekend. Doll said weekends can be an indicator of whether there is adequate staff to help residents. Check on planned activities, too, as they can help residents pass the time on weekends.

Above all, Doll said the most important thing to remember is that just because a nursing home was chosen does not mean that the choice has to be final.

“People tend to think that when they’ve made a decision about nursing homes and other end-of-life issues they’re stuck with it,” Doll said. “But it’s important to remember that you’re not stuck with a decision and it’s not set in stone. If something wasn’t the right move, it’s OK to try it again.”

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