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Zeroing In on the Cost of Senior Housing

Experts say taking your senior housing search offline is an important step when assessing costs and finding the right fit. (iStockPhoto)

The majority of seniors are expected to need long-term care at some point in their lives, and the cost for everything from home health services to nursing home care continues to rise. What’s more, costs can vary by thousands of dollars per month from one area or housing community to the next for older adults and their families looking at senior housing options. Those choices include independent living – for those who generally don’t require ongoing care or have limited needs that may be met through arrangements like in-home care services; assisted living, which provides individualized support services and care; or a nursing home – the highest level of care.

The most recent annual Genworth Cost of Care Survey provides a snapshot of long-term care costs nationwide and how those can vary widely. It found that the 2017 national median monthly cost for nursing home care, for a private room, is $8,121. But in Oklahoma that figure is $5,293 per month – the lowest median nursing home cost for a private room in any state, according to survey data; that compares with $24,333 per month in Alaska, the state with the highest median nursing care cost. What’s more, there’s significant variation in housing and care offerings and cost – and ultimately in what individuals pay out of pocket – even within the same senior living community. And it’s not easy to get useful cost information upfront while checking out senior housing and care options.

“It is difficult to get specific and actionable cost information in senior care in general,” says Christine Albrittain, CEO of Waltham, Massachusetts-based CareScout, a company owned by Genworth Financial that conducted the 2017 Cost of Care Survey. Seniors and their loved ones frequently complain about difficulty finding helpful cost information online when researching senior housing communities. “Their No. 1 pet peeve is that their prices are not listed,” says Kimberly Hulett, president of Creating Results, a strategic marketing, public relations and advertising agency based in Woodbridge, Virginia, and co-author of the latest edition of Social, Silver Surfers, a research-based publication that explores the digital and social behavior of consumers ages 40 and up.

[See: 10 Options to Consider Besides a Nursing Home.]

Often when a senior community is willing to provide pricing information electronically, to get access to it, you must first provide personal information. “You have to give your name and then you can download something, or they’ll email you something,” Hulett says. That type of required sign up is the No. 2 pet peeve of consumers surveyed, she says. Both in the senior living and active adult communities – but moreso in the senior living field, Hulett says, “communities are either not listing the pricing or they’re doing required sign-up.”

One practical difficulty in posting prices is the variation that exists based upon different options offered, contracts and how a person might pay – such as if a person is paying out of pocket for nursing home care or Medicaid-eligible, with the governmental insurance program covering the cost.

“No matter what it requires some homework,” says Stephanie Herbers, manager of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at Washington University in St. Louis. She recommends starting by thinking about what a person needs now and how their needs might change in the future, along with taking personal preferences into consideration. That may include, for example, thinking about how the level of care would increase for a person with Alzheimer’s disease as dementia worsens.

“Do they want to be in an environment with a lot of people their age, or do they want to be around [people] of a variety of ages? Do they need extra care?” Herbers says – and thinking about what that might involve. Before settling on a decision to move into senior housing, experts also emphasize – given that seniors often prefer to age in place – weighing whether receiving care in the home might be a viable option.

When evaluating senior housing options, experts say it’s important to get a handle on the financial piece of the puzzle not only to protect retirement savings but to ensure an individual’s needs – and desires – will be met over the long run.

[See: 7 Red Flags to Watch for When Choosing a Nursing Home.]

When it comes to senior housing pricing it pays (read: it may reduce what you spend) to know what’s typical locally. For those considering, for example, assisted living or nursing home care, Genworth’s interactive Cost of Care website provides cost data for not only states but 440 regions, including metro areas, across the country. An individual or family could use that data point to have a conversation with a senior care provider to advocate for the best rate, Albrittain says. “If the provider was above average, I would say, ‘There are other providers in the area that likely have a better rate. So would you be willing to work with me,’” she suggests.

Research for Social, Silver Surfers also finds that seniors and adult children helping research senior housing options often rule out communities based on their websites alone. This reflects a general expectation consumers increasingly have to be able to access information online (including for pricing), as more transactions are done in this virtual space. “If those people don’t find the info online or build that affinity and trust, then they’re eliminating the communities, purely by their websites,” Hulett says.


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So despite obstacles, you can still access some senior housing pricing virtually. Those listed in directories or that go the extra mile to reach consumers may be more likely to prioritize pricing transparency. It’s not “that every single senior living organization out there does not put their prices online,” Hulett says. “A lot of communities do.” Sites like the senior care referral service A Place for Mom help people find options in their area and access pricing information.

It’s also a good idea to avail yourself of different options to pay for senior housing. That could include a simple rental agreement – whereby, if a higher level of services or care is needed in the future a person would need to pay more to get that – or a life-care contract, designed to keep the rate steady, even if a person’s care needs increase. “A lot of communities provide some calculator tool to help people [determine], ‘Is a life care contract or rental contract better for me?’” Hulett notes.

Just make sure to do your due diligence – and that takes time. In addition to taking a close look at fees versus risk – to find the right balance for you – it’s important to have an independent financial professional and an attorney you trust look over any contract before signing.

[See: 14 Ways to Protect Seniors From Falls.]

Even in the Information Age – with so much a mouse click away online – experts say you should still go offline to round out your senior housing search. As you whittle down options, you’ll want to pick up the phone and ultimately schedule tours to discuss needs and personal preferences, to get more specific pricing information and ultimately to find the best fit. Determining that, after all, requires making calculations – like assessing everything from quality of care to the social environment to meals – that go well beyond dollars and cents.

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