Gail Matillo: Misconceptions about assisted living

Published: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.

Every morning, more than 750,000 American seniors wake up in their assisted living community; approximately 80,000 of those seniors are right here in Florida. Yet, there are considerable misconceptions about assisted living facilities (ALFs) in Florida that, for the benefit of those facing the challenge of placing a loved one in an ALF, should be clarified.

To start, ALFs are not only the senior living communities that most of us would think of when a friend, colleague or news story mentions an ALF. The term also applies to ALFs with limited mental health residents. What does that mean? Most significantly, ALFs with limited mental health residents offer vastly different services than a traditional ALF whose sole purpose is to serve a senior population, as they house and care for those with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. They may also care for seniors that do not have mental illnesses.

The blurring of the lines between traditional ALFs that care for seniors and ALFs with limited mental health residents is rooted in Florida statute, as a distinction between the two is not made clear, causing significant confusion among policymakers, the media and, most importantly, Florida consumers. It is also worth noting that Florida is one of the only states in the nation that categorizes limited mental health facilities as ALFs.

One factor in the increased number of incidents taking place at limited mental health facilities is that these communities typically have a population that is most often comprised of younger, physically stronger residents. In assisted living communities that provide care for mentally ill residents and seniors without mental illness this can create a scenario in which very frail seniors are residing with younger residents with mental illnesses – making the environment unstable and substantially increasing the prevalence of resident-on-resident incidents.

One source of confusion for consumers and their families that are facing the difficult task of choosing a senior living community is that they may not know that communities with limited mental health residents are able to advertise as ALFs and may not know or understand that both types of communities refer to themselves as ALFs.

We at Florida ALFA, Florida’s chapter of the Assisted Living Federation of America, believe that an important conversation must occur, both in the legislative arena and in the media, regarding the distinction between these two very different types of communities and how they are best defined in Florida statute, and subsequently licensed and regulated to ensure residents are delivered the quality care they deserve and that the term “assisted living” is transparent and will clearly mean care for seniors.

We must all work together to ensure these two vulnerable populations are protected –- and that starts with an open and honest conversation. Florida ALFA looks forward to being a resource to Florida’s policymakers, as well as the news media, as this conversation continues to evolve.

Gail Matillo is executive director of Florida ALFA, Florida’s chapter of the Assisted Living Federation of America

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