The Mousetrap: Online Reviews of Senior Living and Care Providers

Matt Perrin

The Mousetrap: Online Reviews of Senior Living and Care Providers

Matt Perrin

This article about the difficulties of interpreting online reviews of senior living originally appeared on Ro & Steve.

Online reviews of senior living and care providers should be about people helping people. But instead they’re mouse traps.

A partially exposed review serves as the bait while the required check-box and fine print are the spring waiting to snap the snare shut. When the box is checked and the ‘agree’ button is clicked, the user is no longer just a person looking to inform one of the toughest decisions they’ll ever have to make. They’ve become a mouse tempted and trapped by a desire for nothing more than helpful information.

Example of fine print
Fine print like this.

Not too long ago, I was the mouse. I read the words auto-dial in the fine print and knew full well what it implied. Still, I weighed my options for a few moments and clicked the button.

No worries, I’ve got the Internet.

I’d just been told by Mom’s doctor, in exceedingly clear terms, that Mom needed to move. Now. Thanks to her dementia, it was no longer safe for her to live alone. It was an overwhelming time but, honestly, I was (naively) comforted by a belief that I had the Internet on my side.

If the Internet can give me confidence in buying a car with a company like DealerRater or choosing a reputable contractor to work on our house with Angie’s List, surely it can help in finding the right community for Mom. I knew I’d have to visit the places for myself, but before that, I wanted to narrow down my search to ensure I would spend my time in the right places.

So armed with a list from Mom’s doctor, I started my search online–trying to understand what people who’d had a family member living at these communities were saying about their experience.

Seeds of disappointment

What I found quickly sowed little seeds of disappointment. I first looked at the usual suspects–Google and Facebook’s reviews of the communities on my list.

**Brief aside**

When I was seeking out reviews, I didn’t care much about star ratings. I cared about what was being said and how the person was describing their family’s experience. I wanted a sense of what Mom’s reality would be if she was living there.

**End aside**

Google reviews lacked context to me. For example, the experience of a person living with Alzheimer’s will be different than someone living with strictly physical challenges–and most of the time there was no way to tell that from a one sentence Google review. Further, many of the reviews were posted by Google’s local guides as opposed to people with direct experience with the business being reviewed.

Given the heavy weight of responsibility, it was critical for me to know that the reviews I was reading were authored by someone who had direct experience with someone they love–spouse, parent, grandparent, friend–living at the community being reviewed. A review left by someone who simply toured the community wasn’t good enough, and a review from an employee wasn’t either.

Facebook reviews had slightly different flaw in my mind. I largely discounted what I saw there for the same reasons I discount reviews of Company X that were originated by Company X, and posted on Company X’s website. I truly believe there are more honest and good people/companies out in the world than not. But as a shopper, I’m eternally skeptical and have an inherent lack of trust in self-produced and published reviews.

In search of… community

The more I read, the more I realized I wanted information from a site dedicated to senior living and care. This was such an important decision, and, learning on the fly, I thought finding this information in a community dedicated specifically to these topics would give me more confidence. So I began searching Google with phrases such as:

  • Senior living reviews
  • Assisted living reviews
  • Senior living near me
  • Assisted living near me
  • Affordable assisted living
  • Best assisted living
  • On and on and on…

Thankfully these types of sites were easy to find. Loads of them came up when I searched –all with warm names including words like Aging, Care, Mom, Senior, Resource and the like. But, less thankfully, as I surfed from site to site, my seeds of disappointment were growing into something bigger.

Harvest of frustration

What I wanted was simple. Mom’s move wasn’t by choice, and she needed support. I wanted to know what life would really be like for her living in one of these communities–as told by people and families who’d already experienced it. The hospitality aspect of the industry is important, I understand that, but it wasn’t at the top of the list for me.

Care was. The building and the amenities don’t provide care and support for the residents. The people working there do. It’s the people that make the fit when it comes to assisted living–or any type of long term care for that matter. And in my mind, the best way to get a true sense of the people–and a community as a result–was to hear directly from families with direct experience with them.

When I couldn’t do that without telemarketing, those little seeds of disappointment were now a full harvest of frustration. I was learning that the sites with the warm sounding names were…mouse traps with the mission of capturing and selling my information instead of…helping. Yet here I was, desperate for the information and without any good options online.

I took the bait

Within five minutes of clicking the button, my phone rang. It was a kind and caring sounding woman who was calling–from Arizona–on behalf of the website I was on. I told her I wasn’t ready to talk and that I’d checked the button only because I wanted to read some of the reviews. The next day, she called again. And then again a couple of days later. On and on it went until I blocked the calls.

I suppose it’s a smart business model, and these companies with the warm sounding names have built big businesses as a result. But the services offered by these websites added no constructive value to me as a consumer when I needed it most.

The telemarketing and sales pressure was unwanted and felt out of place. Beyond that, I had trouble squaring why I couldn’t find a couple of the communities listed by Mom’s doctor on these websites. My harvest was growing larger by the minute.

New to me but not new

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Paula Span wrote about it in The New York Times way back in 2011. Many others have written about it as well. But I’d never been through this before and it was new to me.

the new old age: caring and coping
From the NYT’s ‘The New Old Age’

The business models vary slightly but generally amount to the operators paying a flat fee per lead or a steep premium when a new resident moves in, and the services are “free” for consumers to use. In my experience as a consumer, though, the service wasn’t free. While I didn’t have to pay a fee in dollars to use the services, I did have to pay in terms of frustration and wasted time.

Time for change

Does the model work for some consumers and some operators? It sure does. But it feels to me like that’s the exception and not the rule. Add to that the projection that by 2020 there will be an estimated 117 million people in the U.S. in need of care and only 45 million caregivers, as noted in this Forbes article from last August. It’s time for change.

There will be an ever-increasing number of people going through this process, and there needs to be a better way. A way focused on the consumer. Focused on helping.

Online senior living and care reviews should be about people helping people, not about stuffing cogs in a lead machine.

  1. Senior living and care operators should believe in the care and experience they provide and let the wisdom of crowds be their brand ambassador. This is the only way to differentiate on intangibles. And it’s the people and intangibles that make up a community that really matter.
  2. Consumers and operators deserve a level playing field.
  3. Senior living and care review websites should have a culture of responsibility. “If I don’t leave a thoughtful review, then the next person won’t. Nor will the next one…”
  4. Senior living and care review sites should compliment offline resources such as senior living referral agencies (companies like Oasis Senior Advisors, who are truly plugged into the local area) instead of competing against them.

Making these decisions is hard no matter what. It’s stressful and emotional. But the companies with the warm sounding names make it harder and more frustrating than it needs to be. It’s up to consumers to flip the script–and help each other.

Until then, we’ll continue being the mice caught in the trap.