Interview with Sue Farrow
President & CEO of Integral Senior Living

Sue Farrow started Integral Senior Living (ISL) as a one-woman operation in 2001 and has overseen the growth of the company which now employs more than 2,000 workers in nine states. She has over 35 years of experience in the senior living industry having held leadership positions with Aegis Living, Sunrise Assisted Living and Transamerica Senior Living throughout her career.

Ms. Farrow is nationally known and respected for her expertise in operations and programming and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences. She is also a founding Board Member and Past President of the California Assisted Living Facilities Association (CALA) and a current Board Member of the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA).

Q: How do you know when an elderly loved one is ready for assisted living?

Even though I’ve been operating for 36 years in this space, it’s still different for everyone. Typically, a serious incident happens that starts a search. However, it is best to start talking with your parents and other elderly loved ones about long-term care before something happens. There are often visible signs that a senior is in need of assisted living that precede more serious incidents.

When visiting your parents, make note of the following:

  • Is there fresh food in the fridge?
  • Is the home looking dirty? Are dishes piling up in the sink?
  • Are medications being taken correctly and consistently? Check the date of the prescription and how many pills should be left based on that.
  • Are there burnt pans which could indicate forgetting items on the stove?

These could all be signs that it might be time to consider moving your loved one into an assisted living community.

Q: Once someone has identified that long-term care is necessary for a parent or loved one, what are the best ways to approach having that initial, difficult conversation?

Speaking from the personal experience of placing my own mother-in-law in a long-term residential community, nothing should ever come as a surprise. There should be multiple conversations, over time, as there is no one topic that screams, “let’s have this conversation!” There is no magic way to approach something this difficult, you just have to do it, and do it both early and often.

Many seniors still have the image in their minds that the assisted living communities of today are like the old folks’ homes of yesteryear. However, assisted living has come a long way in the past 20 years. It might be helpful to start painting a picture in their mind of what communities are really like nowadays.

Gather some collateral materials from some assisted living properties in your neighborhood. Check their websites which often have photos of amenity rooms, apartments and personal pictures of residents enjoying activities. Find ways to address a senior’s particular fears about living in a retirement community.

Q: What are some things to consider if your parents resist the idea of assisted living?

There is a not a community out there that will not allow you to bring mom or dad in for a free visit and tour. At ISL, we’ve started a Passport Program that allows a senior to come in and participate in a certain number of activities and/or meals each month. This way the senior starts getting familiar with the property and is able to make connections with other residents before moving in.

Another great way to introduce mom or dad to assisted living is through short-term respite stays. Talk to your parents about doing a “mini-vacation” at a local retirement community for a weekend. This is a totally non-threatening, non-committal way for seniors to get a real taste of assisted living.

Q: Other than addressing a senior’s fear of community living, are there other things adult children should be thinking about during conversations about long-term care?

Once you overcome a senior’s fear about the living conditions in retirement homes, their next biggest concern is often about giving up their independence. This is another unfounded fear, as residents have many opportunities to be independent in a retirement community and, quite frankly, with the pressure of trying to keep up their own home gone, they find the time to indulge in activities they may have had to give up in the past.

In fact, they will probably have more choices about what to do, where to go and what to eat than they do now at home. The best way to help the elderly overcome their fear of losing their independence is to take them on a tour of an assisted living community.

Q: A lot of adult children are saddled with guilt over placing their parents in a retirement community. How do you get over the guilt?

This is a perfectly normal reaction. As adult children we feel like we owe it to our parents to care for them in our own homes as they cared for us when we were children. But the fact is in the majority of households today, both spouses work and have active lives outside the home and having your loved one live with you will continue their isolation.

The number one thing that prevents memory care issues is the opportunity to remain socially engaged with other people. Many seniors have trouble driving, which can prevent them from attending church, doing the shopping, reaching appointments and accomplishing the other daily activities that keep them active and engaged with the community.

Once adult children understand that their parents are very isolated on their own and that moving into a community of other likeminded seniors is actually beneficial for them emotionally, much of that guilt is mitigated.

Q: How can someone be confident that they are placing an elderly loved one into a good retirement community?

It all comes down to what we call the “90/90/90 Rule.” Ninety percent of the time you’ll be able to make a decision about a community within 90 seconds of arriving and within 90 feet. Within 90 seconds you will see how the residents there look and if they are socially engaged, well-cared for and happy. You’ll also get a sense for the care the staff takes in the managing and operating the building.

The first impressions formed after walking through the front doors are often the right ones. Trust your gut. It will tell you if you have walked into a warm and caring community.

Q: For families currently considering assisted living, do you have any recommendations for people they could talk to about the process?

At ISL, one of our proudest moments is when someone hears about us from other families and friends. I suggest first talking to people in your social circle at church, at school and in the community. Talk to anyone you know who has gone through the process before. Ask your loved one if any of their friends are living in a community and then talk to them and/or their family.

Q: Is there anything else for families to keep in mind?

There are certainly some good checklists on what to look for in a long-term care community on industry association websites. Most associations have a checklist that consumers can pick up or print and take with them on their visit that remind them of things to look for once they pass the front doors of a community. It is also important to look at a community’s dining program and activity calendar. The more activities a community offers, the more engaging it tends to be.

Q: How does ISL address senior concerns and make retirement a positive experience?

The strength of ISL is that we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to our communities. We take the time to understand what the needs of a particular property are and structure programs and activities that best suit that property and community. We visit our buildings all the time to really get a sense of what those needs are.

For example, there is a little property in Livermore called Rosewood. The facility was built in the 1980s as an independent, congregate building and we took it over in 1998 when it was trying to compete with a brand new independent living property a half block away.

We looked at the environment and figured out that it needed more programs for assisted living and memory care. Once we embraced these new programs, occupancy rates went from 65% to nearly 100% in assisted living and we are now opening a new memory care unit to meet demand.

In general, senior housing operators are very open with each other when it comes to best practices. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing—quality of care and service for our seniors.

Find Assisted Living

If your elderly loved one is in need of assisted living or memory care, consider an Integral Senior Living community. At ISL, you can expect the best in senior living. Find an Integral Senior Living community or browse our directory to find assisted living communities near you.