Whom to consult for help finding senior housing

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A Place for Mom is a free referral service for families, but be prepared for repeated phone calls and emails.

Trying to find senior housing for mom or dad? Ignore those ads on TV.

Instead, contact an expert known as a geriatric care manager or geriatric social worker.

Geriatric care management is a growing business, said Jeanette Gallagher, a licensed social worker with Ralston Penn Geriatrics in Center City. Geriatric care managers advocate one-on-one for you and your parent or elderly family member, and help find the right care facility. Often, they have experience in fields such as gerontology, nursing, social work, or psychology, with a focus on aging and elder care.

Missy Coopersmith and Mimsye Katz are just two in the Philadelphia region. They insist on touring senior facilities in person - usually with the prospective resident's extended family.

"We constantly visit and review state regulator reports, trying to find those [facilities] we feel comfortable recommending," Coopersmith said.

Geriatric social workers arrange face-to-face meetings to assess the elderly person, with detailed discussions about costs and quality of living. When you find a care facility you like, the advocate helps negotiate rates and terms.

Finally, geriatric care managers coordinate the move-in and typically conduct follow-up visits, to make sure the placement was successful.

What they don't do?

Unlike some referral services advertised online or on television, they don't accept commissions without first visiting a facility. Gallagher, for her part, tends to give several suggestions for places families can check out "so that I can keep some objectivity and not just refer to facilities that Penn has a relationship with, although many times families will ask directly for facilities with a Penn M.D. on attendance," she explained.

She avoids, for instance, A Place for Mom, which advertises extensively.

"I do not refer to A Place for Mom, and if someone inquires about it, I generally educate them about their relationships with facilities and the reimbursement."

Anthony Polk, who runs a competing service, said A Place for Mom generally receives as commission from a housing facility the equivalent of 100 percent to 125 percent of the facility's monthly rate.

Said a spokesman for A Place for Mom: "The specific percentage of fee paid by APFM partners is not released to the public, but I can say the 100-125 percent number is high. Additionally, APFM partners are required to offer the same senior living community rates to families and are prohibited from passing along APFM's service fee to families."

Advocates for the elderly say they are troubled by business practices at A Place for Mom, the nation's largest senior-housing referral company.

"I believe [the company] does a disservice to families engaged in the difficult process of finding the right place for aging parents," said Polk, who runs Senior Advocates Network, a referral service for geriatric care managers and social workers. "You are better served using the services of those who personally represent your parents in the search for senior housing."

If you search online for "assisted living Philadelphia," you'll likely see ads including former Good Morning America host Joan Lunden, the company's longtime celebrity spokeswoman.

If you contact A Place for Mom, prepare to be emailed and called immediately and regularly, activity permitted under its privacy policy.

"Within minutes, you will receive a phone call from them asking if you can afford long-term care, your parent's physical condition, and their finances," Polk said.

"This can continue for weeks, with multiple phone calls and repeated emails," he added, saying it has happened to his clients repeatedly.

A Place for Mom is a free service to families, but it employs commissioned salespeople and is affiliated with websites such as AssistedLiving.com, Alzheimerslocator.com, and Agingcare.com.

"In my experience, when a company receives referral fees, it is not possible for them to remain objective when making referrals to families," Gallagher said.

"A social worker should maintain objectivity," she said, "and the referrals we make are to facilities for which we have heard positive feedback from other families, and we never accept referral fees or gifts."

Resources are available to find a geriatric care manager or geriatric social worker.

Katz, in her 19th year as a geriatric care manager, belongs to two professional associations, Aging Life Care Association and the Professional Care Alliance of Delaware Valley. They can help direct you to a social worker or expert in senior housing.

Geriatric care managers and social workers are generally paid by the hour, between $95 and $150, and can be used regularly or intermittently. Some do receive commissions from senior housing facilities, which you should discuss as part of working with them.

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund