Big assist

Imagine that your elderly mom broke her hip and that she isn’t able to live at home in her aging two-story house. She will be discharged from rehabilitative care in a week and her doctors say she needs to go to an assisted living facility. But you don’t have a clue which ones are close to your neighborhood, will provide the care she needs or will let her keep her cat.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone had done that research for you?

Someone has. Two UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members with 40 years of combined research experience on the topic have put that information at your fingertips in the searchable website alce.unc.edu. The nonprofit site was created nearly a year ago by Sheryl Zimmerman (School of Social Work) and Philip Sloane (Department of Family Medicine), co-directors of the Program on Aging, Disability and Long-term Care at UNC’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research since 1997. Together they are Assisted Living Comparison Experts (ALCE).

Detailed information about assisted living residences

ALCE provides free, objective and detailed information about all assisted living residences in North Carolina. “This is a service to the state,” Zimmerman said. The site is also a labor of love for two boomer generation adults who had encountered their own frustrations in finding the right assisted living community for their own parents.

The site is user-friendly and informative, created for those who don’t even know which questions to ask. From the home page, you can look up an assisted living residence by name or search for one by ZIP code, radius in miles and price per month. When your search results come up, you can refine the search with selections in these topics: residence options, dementia and other care needs, staffing, activities and pets, and payment and services.

Linked to each option is a pop-up that tells you why each is important. For example, “residence options” are important because “assisted living residences differ in their size, the levels of care they provide, and whether or not private rooms are available.”

ALCE provides this information because its creators knew that most searches on the site would be done “in a crisis mode,” Sloane said. “People have a tendency not to plan ahead. Then something happens and all of a sudden it’s urgent.” Also, existing websites are often biased, essentially marketing the property that lists the residence, or else receiving a fee if someone is placed there.

In contrast, Zimmerman and Sloane have been thinking about these topics for a long time, and how hard it is for most people to understand what assisted living is and the differences between residences. Until now, like most of their academic colleagues, they shared their knowledge through books and scholarly publications — more than 400 in total.

Something useful for consumers

“But our research was not being applied,” Zimmerman said. Then, in 2008, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, awarded them a grant for the development of an assisted living questionnaire that could provide information to those seeking assisted living. At last, they thought, a chance to create something useful for consumers.

Yet after the completion of the questionnaire, there was no plan to implement the questionnaire and get its information out to those who need it, much to the frustration of the researchers. “How do we get all this research to matter?” Zimmerman asked. And the answer was, “Do it yourself.”

“We knew the time had come to make a difference and be helpful,” Zimmerman said.

So the researchers became entrepreneurs and took part in the Launch the Venture course for startups at Kenan-Flagler Business School. At the time, their instructor was going through the process of helping his own elderly parents relocate, and he thought their idea for a searchable website was a winner.

“I’m very enthusiastic about what they’re doing,” said Ted Zoller, director of Kenan-Flagler’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “Just about every family faces this, and very few websites are looking at this with strong evaluative standards.”

Includes all assisted living providers in NC

ALCE includes all the assisted living providers in the state, with information about each downloaded from state regulatory websites as well as phone calls made by the research staff and updated regularly.

Only a few other states, like Maryland and Ohio, have this kind of objective resource for consumers. Zimmerman and Sloane would like to see this kind of directory expand – perhaps with ALCE as a prototype. As Zimmerman realized when her own parents were choosing which of their children to live near when they relocated, consumers who live in one state often need information about another.

“I very much would like this to go national. We need a way to put this information in people’s hands,” she said. “For now, we’re focusing on residences located in North Carolina, but we recognize that people in our state may be interested in assisted living in other states if they have family living elsewhere.”

By Susan Hudson, University Relations.

Published February 6, 2014.