Shopping Ohio's Booming Assisted Living Industry

Melissa Corry Ebel's father wasn't doing well at home. John Corry's wife was gone and his memory and motor skills were in decline.

Then a friend recommended a specialized assisted living facility for folks with dementia. He moved in three years ago.

"Every time I bring him back - I just was out exercising with him - and brought him back and so he goes, "I live here don't I?"

John Corry's clothes were in the closet. His daughter quickly responded: "Yeah isn't that great."

Ebel says he never objects because "it's a really comfortable place to be, it feels like home." She visits her 84-year-old father twice a week.

"Since he came here, he lost weight, he's healthier, he's exercising, he's happy. I mean he's truly, truly happy for the first time he developed dementia, because he has no worries," Ebel says.

The assisted living center Corry lives in - Arden Courts of Westlake - is just one of several along the same road in a booming market.

"As people started to getting older, and people became more and more disgruntled with nursing homes... then there became this market for assisted living. There was a new industry and there was money to be made," says Sheryl Zimmerman, a distinguished professor and co-director of the program on aging, disability, and long-term Care at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Zimmerman says assisted living is mostly a private pay industry, which means residents usually pay cash or finance it through long-term care insurance. The cost ranges from $900 to $9,000 a month in Ohio.

And the types of homes vary small mom-and-pop operations to high-rise places with chandeliers.

"You've seen one assisted living community, you've seen one assisted living community. That is how variable they are," Zimmerman says.

The other thing that varies is state oversight of the homes, says Zimmerman. Each state determines its own licensing, regulations and inspection schedule for assisted living centers.

Ohio's Long Term Care Ombudsman Beverly Laubert says to check the state's resident satisfaction surveys and ask lots of questions.

"If you ask the person who's giving you the tour about meals, what kind of foods do you serve, the consumer, the person taking the tour should expect to be asked back, well what does your mom like?" Laubert says.

That same attitude should work with the schedule as well. If Mom or Dad wants to sleep in and have a late breakfast, he should be able to sleep until 9 a.m. regardless of the center's schedule.

And, Laubert says, that while it's courteous to schedule the first visit and tour, family members should then "pop in without an appointment just to kinda see what's going on."

At Arden Courts on a recent Friday afternoon, John Corry joined with other residents for the weekly music session. A piano player sang and led the group in old but familiar songs.

Corry, holding hands with a female friend, sang "You are My Sunshine" with a smile on his face. And staff members walked around talking to residents and gently encouraging them to participate.

But not all homes have the same activities and not everyone can expect to have such an experience.

National media attention on the growing assisted living industry has found cause for concern. Last year, the investigative journalism outfit Propublica found that regulations for assisted living facilities across the country are lax . And they spotlighted an Ohio case.

The state does not have minimum staffing ratios. And Ohio also does not fine assisted living centers for wrong doing. Instead, the state inspects the homes every 15 months - and If complaints are severe enough - the regulators give the centers "an opportunity to correct" and appeal.

A state spokeswoman says there is no standard or rule as to how quickly the state revokes a license if the center does have ongoing issues.

When asked about these details, Ohio's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Laubert expressed concern about the regulatory system. She said she has advocated for more the use of alternative remedies to the license revoking, such as fines.

Meanwhile, Laubert says it Is possible to find the right fit for your loved one. You just have to do your homework.

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