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10 questions to ask before choosing a care home

Our readers’ experiences tell us that some questions are really difficult to ask in front of a parent, but it’s important not to let the answers come as a shock once your parent is settled in. They’re particularly necessary because the answer changes from care home to care home.

Can your parent stay for a trial period?

If you think you’ve found the right home for your parent and they’re happy with it too it might be a good idea to arrange for them to stay for a few weeks before you make a final decision. Many care homes are now including a trial period clause within their contracts allowing you and your parent to opt out should they not enjoy the initial time they spend in the home.

It’s important to remember that this could just be a period of adjustment as nowhere feels like home right away. Even if you have to move your parent into care in an emergency it’s worth thinking about whether the home you’ve chosen for them is best suited to their needs once they’ve had a chance to recover and form their own opinion.

Is your parent free to make their own choices?

When a parent moves into care it can be a shock to the system. The communal nature of care homes means that your parent’s privacy and independence can become diminished as they’re no longer in control of their own routine.

Asking how much freedom is afforded to your parent in terms of choosing what time to eat and what food they’d like as well as decorating their room and being allowed to go outside whenever they fancy is important in order to maintain their independence and facilitate their happiness.

What are the home’s policies?

While your parent’s chosen care home may provide these to you in writing it’s good to know what you should be aware of. Depending on your parent’s preferences there can be certain things that could be deal breakers.

Are they allowed to bring their pet with them? Are there designated quiet areas or specific times of the day when quiet hours are observed? This could be particularly important for parents who prefer a peaceful afternoon reading rather than watching the latest soap episode blaring from the TV.

Finding out ahead of time whether the home allows smoking (even in specific areas), when family can visit and whether your parent can still see their own doctor can be vital in terms of their health and wellbeing and can help to make the move into care a little easier for your parent.

How good is the wheelchair access?

Even if your parent doesn’t use mobility aids or a wheelchair when they move into care there may come a time when they need them especially if their health begins to decline. Ensuring that doorways and walkways as well as the spacing between furniture in the home is suitable to accommodate the use of these aids will prevent the stress of moving your parent to another home should they have mobility issues in the future.

Is there a lift and is it positioned near your parent’s room? A lift can be a great source of comfort and ease for parents who struggle traversing stairs or walking longer distances especially if it takes them a long time to do so.

Are there a wide range of activities for your parent to choose from?

While most care homes offer varying degrees of activities for their residents it’s good to know whether they cater for your parent’s specific interests. Learning more about the daily schedule of events as well as whether your parent can make use of resources like puzzles and games without it being a scheduled activity will help to determine if the home is right for them.

You may also want to ask what the home does to celebrate birthdays and special occasions such as Christmas. These can be important events for our parents that have always been a part of family tradition so trying not to disrupt this routine because your parent has moved into care will help to keep life as normal as possible.

What safety and security procedures do they have in place?

Knowing what plans your parent’s care home has in place to protect them will ensure you peace of mind as well as guaranteeing their safety. If your parent is dependent on a medical machine do they have an emergency generator in case the home’s affected by a power cut? Does the home have technologies in place to prevent wandering and do they have security staff to prevent unauthorised entries and exits?

In case of fire does the home have alarms suitable for residents with visual or hearing impairments? Are there fire escapes on each floor and are they accessible for those with mobility issues? If your parent is injured or has a health complication does the home have their own transport to take them to the hospital? If not, can an ambulance get to site quickly? There are lots of things to think about.

Are there enough staff to provide consistent care?

If you’re able to talk to staff members when you visit it’s worth doing so to get a feel for their attitude to their job as well as their workload. If they’re too busy to stop and talk it may signify that they’re short-staffed which could mean the level of care your parent receives might be affected.

When your parent moves into care the nursing staff can become a lot like a family unit to them. Finding out whether the same staff members work with the same residents can be important in terms of continuity of care for your parent. Make sure you also know what the home’s procedures are if you suspect abuse.

Can you request a change of carer if your parent doesn’t take to the person fulfilling the role for them? Are there social workers and a doctor on site? Do occupational therapists and podiatrists as well as optometrists and audiologists visit the home or can residents be taken for regular check-ups?

What happens when the money runs out?

Caroline’s godmother was settled as well as she could be in a care home, given the extent of her dementia and other physical problems. When the money from the sale of the house ran out, Caroline was requested to find her godmother another home.

Yet another contact from a care home group was horrified to hear this story. She said that they would never ask someone to leave. This group charges around £600/week, but only received £400/week from the local authority – that figure varies from authority to authority. The group says it would take the hit rather than ask a resident to leave.

When we asked the question again of a top-of-the-range care home, they avoided the question and started talking about investment planning for care.

The bottom line is – ask what will happen and don’t be put off by a vague answer.

What are the hidden extras?

We know of one parent in a high-charging nursing home who faces receiving a top-up to his bill whenever he heads off to any appointments, such as dentists or the hospital. If he chooses to go “by himself” rather than call on friends or family he has to pay for the taxi and a carer to accompany him. If it’s a hospital appointment the home will arrange hospital transport to pick him up, but it’s unclear whether he would then be expected to find his own way around once there.

Again, our middle-of-the-range care home says they would certainly not charge for the carer – as the carer’s services are already paid for as part of the care home fees. It’s important to know just exactly what to expect from your chosen care home.

Does the home offer palliative care?

Making sure your parent’s last few days are as comfortable and as happy as they can be means that it’s better for them not to be moved from their care home. If the home doesn’t offer palliative care then what happens when your parent reaches the end of their life? Will they be moved into hospital or is there a hospice linked to the home where they can spend their final days or weeks?

The Elderly Accommodation Counsel’s care advice site First Stop offers a comprehensive list of questions to ask when looking for a care home and Age UK also has a useful checklist that you can download and use as a guide to fill in when you visit a potential home for your parent.

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