I was 14 years old the first time I stepped into a senior living community. Our high school choir was on a day trip to a nearby assisted living community where the principle's mother lived. We were there to volunteer an hour of singing for the residents. As a lover of music, I was always aware of the way music feeds the soul, helps the body to heal and the mind to grow. I had been looking forward to sharing this experience. I wasn't sure what I'd encounter on that first visit. Fluorescent lights, industrial flooring and neutral colored walls all blurred together. This was a higher level care community, so there were many people in wheelchairs and using walkers. While my senses were taking in this unique environment, I was also being overcome with a certain feeling. The residents were cheerful. The staff and family members were kind and engaging. Everyone seemed happy to be there and made me want to be there too.

In the decades since the aesthetic standards of senior living communities have dramatically improved. And so has the food! Fading away are the days of drab, institutional living with smelly halls and generic art. Over the last 10 years, the last five especially, senior communities have become impressive, luxurious residences whose services and amenities rival the best resorts. They each offer services that are so similar, it can be hard to tell them apart. If you find yourself exploring senior living for yourself or a loved one, you might be wondering what to look for. After some years as a senior living professional, I've come to learn there is one thing that distinguishes every community: the feeling.

My boss once told me that heart cannot be taught. He said, "When I'm hiring, I look for heart. The rest can be trained." When a person truly cares, you can tell. When there are life and energy in a room, you can tell. When a caregiver enjoys coming to work, when a senior is content and well looked after, you can tell. Within the various care levels of senior living, the services are mostly the same. The difference lies in the hearts of the people delivering the care. When you find a community where it's more than just a job for those who work there, you'll feel it.

Someone told me recently that helping their parents move into a senior living community reminded them of dropping their kids off at school for the first time. They are trusting their family into the care of other people and want to be sure they will be truly looked after. The process of choosing the right community can be daunting. Once you’ve found one with the services, lifestyle and location you like, ask the staff why they work in senior living. You’ll feel how much they care in their voice and the stories they tell. Look for the heart. Oh, and try the food. Always try the food.

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