Assisted Living's 'Best of the Best' -- What They Have in Common

The Caring Super Stars
CaringSuperStars2016

-By Anthony Cirillo, Caring.com guest contributor

Tina Turner’s Song “The Best” contains these lyrics: "You're simply the best. Better than all the rest."

As part of our annual Caring Stars program recognizing the best assisted living and memory care communities nationwide, we have a special honor for those who've demonstrated excellence over several years. Known as "Caring Super Stars," this elite group represents the 'best of the best' in senior living, having met the rigorous Caring Stars criteria for three or more years. Considering that the Caring Stars program is five years old, that’s quite a feat. While there were 33 Caring Super Stars in 2015, for 2016 nearly 100 made the list! Let’s take a look at what makes these Super Stars stand above all the rest in 2016.

1. Online Reviews Are More Significant Than Ever Before

The 2016 list of Caring Super Stars tripled to 97 communities -- that points to both an increase in providers building stellar online reputations year after year and increased engagement among senior living consumers in submitting reviews. And that's good news because people are more likely to buy from a company that has positive online reviews than a company with no review. This is true for prospective assisted living residents and their loved ones too, and the communities looking to serve them are catching on.

Online reviews help communities' listings rise to the top of the search engines -- where family caregivers and older adults find them more easily. A combined 93% of senior care searches say online reviews are trustworthy and helpful for researching local providers, according to Caring.com research. And Caring Stars communities on average receive double the volume of inquiries and two times more move-ins as well -- people want the best care for their loved ones, and these communities earn their business.

The fact that the number of Caring Super Stars tripled this year also shows that communities are embracing transparency and proactively developing strategies to bolster online reviews while contributing to their brand’s reputation. More importantly, family caregivers and older adults are turning to those reviews as a trusted source of information.

2. Warm Climates Still Dominate and Cold-Weather Climates Gain Traction

This year’s Caring Super Stars were decidedly in warm climates. In fact, Southern California is home to the most Caring Super Stars -- Los Angeles is the number one city on the list. It’s not surprising, since warm climates allow for year-round outdoor activities at senior living communities, contributing to a better experience and better reviews.

Meanwhile, more communities located in cold weather climates earned the Caring Super Star distinction this year than last year. Engaging residents in meaningful activity whether rain or shine is perhaps a better indicator of quality.

For example, in a review of Brookdale Gaines Ranch, one visitor noted that the staff “devote more energy and attention towards keeping the 'shut-in' residents entertained by matching them with other residents who might visit and play puzzles, listen to music, offer pet visits, etc.”

3. Chains Still Reign Supreme, but Share of Small Businesses on the Rise

Nearly 16% of communities on this year’s list are small businesses or single-community care providers. Senior living chains still appear to provide consistent experiences of excellence but more and more consumers are also delivering high praise for smaller service providers too. Marketing sophistication is not limited to chains with big resources. As more providers -- large chains and small businesses -- see the value of reviews, their culture reflects a commitment to making the overall customer experience at their community a top organizational priority. Places like Mustang Creek Estates Residential Assisted Living in Texas, where a family member noted: "What I like most about Mustang Creek Estates is it has six individual homes instead of a large institution. The staff is very friendly, very kind, and very knowledgeable. They are very likable people." Or Solterra Senior Living at Chandler, Arizona, where one family member said: “the staff and the tenants are visible everywhere. It is very friendly, very warm, and family-owned. The owner's grandmother is there, so there is a level of service and caring that I did not see anywhere else.”

4. Caring Super Stars Garner Praise from Respected Health Professionals

When health professionals take the time to review a community favorably, the reviews carry more weight. And that was the case with this year’s Caring Super Stars. As a family member of residents at Sterling Aventura Assisted Living in Aventura, Florida commented, "Sterling Aventura has a high recommendation from the private CNAs that we hire when my dad comes home from rehabilitation." And here’s what a home health professional had to say about Chester Street Residence in Royal Oak, Michigan:

“I am a home care nurse who has been going to this facility since they opened in 2012. As a nurse, I really notice when excellent care is given by staff members. I can tell you from someone who has visited a lot of assisted living facilities; Chester Street is truly among the very BEST. I've been so impressed with the wonderful, loving and personal care each staff members gives to the residents. They have a genuine concern and take a keen interest in their well-being.”

5. Personalized, Customer-Centric Responses to Reviews

This year’s Caring Super Stars stood out from other communities by taking the time to respond to criticisms with specific answers and actions. Family caregivers, future and current residents respect that transparency and that contributes to even more positive reviews.

Take Spring Hills Lake Mary in Florida where a reviewer expressed displeasure in the price and size of the community, in addition to complimenting the community on other features. Their response: "Dear Pam, Thank you for your positive feedback. We thrive on our reviews to keep up our high standards of care and services. At Spring Hills Senior Communities, we pride ourselves on our teams who are dedicated with a commitment to quality. We strive to exceed expectations with cutting edge technology and innovative programs. We are a leader in the industry and in the communities we serve."

Caring Super Stars don't just respond to negative reviews only -- they also show appreciation for praise as well, such as this response from Oxton Court of Savannah, Georgia: "Dear Dean, Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a nice message. We will definitely share your kind words with the Oxton Court of Savannah team! We are proud of our team for always stepping up and not batting an eye. Thank you for your continued trust in us to care for your mother."

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Excellence in senior care today means not just providing a safe environment and quality care. It is also about telling your story. And when satisfied residents and their loved ones tell that story for you, you create an army of influencers who spread positive word-of-mouth. After all, the experience of residents and their visitors drives marketing for the organization. Family members, residents, prospects and caregivers have unanimously told the story of assisted living and memory care facilities through consistent, year-over-year, high quality online reviews. The Caring Super Stars continue to thrive and outshine their competitors. And that means families have more high-quality senior care options.

Caring Super Stars of 2016 (listed alphabetically)

The Caring Super Stars of 2015

First impressions can go a long way when evaluating an assisted living or memory care community -- and it's important to gather as much information as possible and trust your instincts or your gut sense of whether a community is a good fit for your loved one and your family. You can also gain valuable insights from consumer reviews of the community. But one thing many people overlook is the question of consistency: Has the community you're considering been noted for providing good care and a supportive, healthy environment year after year?

This matters, of course, because your loved one is going to be putting down roots in this new community, where you hope she'll live happily for a long time to come. And you don't have to make this decision in the dark -- there are indicators that can help you assess how well a community maintains its high standards, such as those highlighted in our top assisted living trends article culled from each year's list of Caring Stars (the best assisted living and memory care communities nationwide, based on consumer reviews).

In 2015, we also started recognizing those communities that have earned the Caring Stars service excellence award for three or more years of the program's history. Here, we list these "Caring Super Stars," followed by common themes among super communities that win the Caring Stars award year after year.

Caring Super Stars of 2015 (listed alphabetically)

Themes Among This Year's Caring Super Stars

All of the Caring Stars -- not just the Super Stars -- have been praised by consumers for providing service excellence. What else stands out about those who've earned this distinction year after year? Here are some common themes among the 33 Super Star communities of 2015:

1. Sunny Climates Reign Supreme
Among the states with the most Caring Super Stars, four have lots of sunshine year-round: California, Florida, Arizona, and Texas. As we reported in our article "Best Places to Grow Old," experts often recommend retiring or aging in the Sun Belt or places where there are mild winters. There's also some evidence to show that sunshine (and fresh air) -- aka "vitamin O" -- can be beneficial for health and well-being. Some scientific studies have even correlated warm weather and sunshine to happiness and longer life. So it's no surprise to see so many Caring Super Stars in sunny places. "I like the location, and I know that it is the best place for my mom," said a family caregiver of her mom's Super Star community in Texas. "It was very bright, cheerful, clean, and it had a very nice environment," said another reviewer of a Super Star community in California.

2. Staffing Makes a Significant Difference
Ask the executive director of Keystone Place at Legacy Ridge, to pick one reason their community has earned the Caring Star award for three years, and they answer without hesitation: "Our staff." The bottom line is, "It's the people who create the community. You can have beautiful grounds, delicious meals, and every amenity and activity you can think of, but it's the staff who create the everyday experience of living there."

We know this focus also matters greatly to consumers. For instance, in an analysis of the most-used words in reviews in Caring.com's Senior Care Directory for 2013 and 2014, we found that "staff" and "people" were most commented upon -- more so than the building, activities, and amenities. This was true even when we reduced the analysis to just the reviews of assisted living and memory care communities. So it makes sense that communities focused on hiring and retaining the best employees would be among those communities earning consumer praise for service excellence year after year.

"I was impressed with the way they took care of my mom and the relationship between the residents and the staff," said one family member of a resident at The Montebello on Academy. Said another of the same community, "While he was dying, the care from the staff and residents was incredible. So much support, hugs, and genuine caring for me and him. At the twilight of his life, he was well cared for and he was loved by the staff."

3. Some National Brands Stand Out for Excellence
Take a look at the Caring Super Stars of 2015 list above, and you'll see that some national senior living companies have multiple communities that earned the excellence award in three or more years, including Brookdale Senior Living, Atria Senior Living, and Elmcroft Senior Living.

Said one reviewer of Brookdale Gaines Ranch, "For eight years I have been providing aid and support to my 96-year-old parent, whom I moved from another city to be closer to a family member. I have visited and witnessed eight to ten other comparable assisted living facilities in the surrounding area. With the eight years of longevity in this facility, it has proven to be one of the finest, most attractive, and well-appointed retirement/independent living/assisted living centers in the Austin area."

Said another family caregiver of Elmcroft of Arlington, "Having to move my mother out of her home and place her with strangers is probably the hardest decision that I have ever made. It is a responsibility that I did not take lightly. Moving her to Elmcroft was the best decision that I could have made for her and for me. The people at Elmcroft treat her like she is their family and for that I will be forever grateful."

And these were just a couple of the many positive comments all three companies' communities received from those they serve.

4. Only One Can Also Be Great
Not all of the Caring Super Stars are part of multi-location, national chains. In fact, five are small businesses operating a single-location community. They're proving year after year that you don't have to be a large chain with extensive resources to be able to deliver the high-quality experience that consumers love.

"I'm a nurse and my colleague mentioned Dodge Park and I Googled it. It was love at first sight!" said one adult daughter of her mother's community, Dodge Park Rest Home. "Dodge Park is just a perfect fit for her, because the place is not that big. She does not get overwhelmed. It's a family environment."

5. Consumer Feedback is a Priority
What every single Caring Super Star -- and Caring Star -- community has done is to actively ask for feedback from residents and their family members. And not just once but regularly, to help ensure that they're delivering on their service mission and learning more about opportunities for further improvement. In order to qualify for Caring Stars consideration, these communities had to receive a handful of positive reviews each year, and achieve an overall high score across all ratings they received for all time. Caring Super Stars have done that for three or more years since the Caring Stars program launched in 2012.

These communities also take the time to respond to reviews they receive on Caring.com. "I appreciate you taking the time to tour our community. We pride ourselves on having a warm, cozy, residential family atmosphere and on providing the highest quality of services and living possible under the individual circumstances. It would be my pleasure as owner and administrator to be of any service possible in the future," wrote Martin Seltzer of Chester Street Residence.

Learn more about senior care reviews, share feedback about your loved one's senior living community, and find out which communities nationwide are honored for excellence, all here on Caring.com.