A lot goes into choosing the right nursing home for a loved one, including its record and reputation, costs, and of course its location. Medicare and other experts on elder care also put a sharp focus on visiting the facility.

They suggest you call ahead and make an appointment, but Medicare also encourages you to make another, surprise visit. And they suggest having a clear strategy for how to do it and what to ask.

Getting your foot in the door

While visiting or arranging your visit, the caution the staff takes or expects you to take in your roaming around is not necessarily all bad. The staff should have an active interest in protecting the safety and privacy rights of its residents.

Feel free to introduce yourself to other family members visiting their loved ones, tell them why you are there and ask about their experiences there. Ask if they mind you chatting with their loved one. Also, of course, extend all the same courtesies to the residents themselves.

Get ready to ask a lot of questions

Asking questions gives you a measure of how welcoming and informed the staff and administrators really are. Visitors should not be afraid to ask about anything that seems unusual or to follow up if anything comes up later.

Medicare provides a good starter list of questions you will want to ask and encourages you to ask any others that come to mind. The facility’s willingness to help you understand what they offer is itself a sign of the experience you and your loved one can expect in the future if you choose their facility.

Above all, Medicare encourages you to be confident in your right and responsibility to ask questions and to expect answers.

Get a sense of daily life

While a nursing home is not your own, private home, do not necessarily ignore your instincts about the overall cleanliness, comfort and safety of the place as well as the mood of the patients and staff.

Does the home have any private spaces for residents to visit with loved ones?

Ask, if possible, to see and taste meals provided at the nursing home. Ask if you can see a menu for today, the week and/or the month.

Your loved one will have many needs to meet

Examples of topics to ask about on behalf of your loved one are:

  • Transportation options to community activities and religious services.
  • Policies and procedures for general mental health care, in addition to resources for dementia and their policy for using anti-psychotic medication.
  • Help in accessing preventive care and specialists like dentists as well as eye, ear and foot doctors.
  • Policy on patients seeing their personal doctors and ways they might get to their appointments.
  • Regularly scheduled screening programs for flu, pneumonia and other vaccinations.

Medicare notes that its requires homes to either provide specialist treatment or help in making and getting to appointments. Medicare also notes that it requires access to annual flu shots (and that residents can opt-out of these shots for medical or other reasons).