Nursing Home and Senior Care Terms You Need To Know

When searching for a nursing home for your loved one if you hear any phrase from a doctor, nurse or social worker that you don’t understand, speak up — right when you hear it. If you don’t interrupt politely, you may forget what you wanted to ask by the end of the conversation.

If you nod your head like a good listener, a professional immersed in these problems probably will think you understand and launch into the next topic. Or worse, that person could leave you scratching your head and wondering what to do next as part of a plan of care.

Here’s a list of terms that you may encounter:

  • Activities of daily living (ADLs). Actions a person must do by themselves to engage independently in everyday life, such as bathing, dressing, eating, being mobile, moving from bed to a chair and using the toilet.
  • Acute care. Medical care given for a short time to treat a specific illness or condition. This can include doctor visits, short hospital stays or surgery.
  • Adult care home, also called an adult family-care home (AFCH) or group home. A small assisted living residence where employees provide for disabled adults or seniors who need help with certain tasks but want to remain as independent as possible. They are an alternative to more restrictive, institutional settings, such as nursing homes, which provide 24-hour nursing care.
  • Adult day care. Centers that provide companionship and help to older adults who need supervision during the day. The programs can help give a break to a round-the-clock caregiver.
  • Advance directives. Written statements that communicate individuals’ medical preferences if they become unable to make their own health care decisions.
  • Alzheimer’s disease. A type of progressive mental deterioration, affecting memory and the ability to process thoughts, that is one form of dementia.
  • Assisted living facility (ALF). Housing for those who may need help living independently but do not need skilled nursing care. The level of assistance varies among residences and may include help with bathing, dressing, meals and housekeeping.
  • Assistive technology devices. Products that improve a person’s ability to live and function independently. Low-tech assistive devices include canes and pill organizers; high-tech items include electric wheelchairs, hearing aids and smartphones.
  • Cohousing. A small planned community in which single-family homes, townhouses or rental units are clustered around amenities such as a community kitchen and dining room, common areas for sitting, craft and meeting rooms, gardens and potentially adult and child day care. The goal is to design a neighborhood where people of all ages and family statuses can rely on the informal, mutual support of neighbors to help out.
  • Comorbidity. The presence, or coexistence, of more than one disorder in the same person. They can occur at the same time or one after the other. Interactions between the illnesses can worsen the course of both.
  • Continuing care retirement community (CCRC). Housing that offers a variety of living options and services — including independent living, assisted living and skilled care, often all on the same campus — and is designed to meet a person’s changing needs.
  • Custodial care. Non-medical care that helps individuals with bathing, dressing and other basic care that most people do themselves, such as using eye drops. It can occur in a range of environments including adult day care, assisted living centers and residential care facilities.
  • Dementia. A general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Memory loss is an example. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, but not all dementia comes from Alzheimer’s.
  • Discharge planner. A professional who assists patients and their families in developing a method of care for a patient following a hospital or nursing home stay.
  • Do not resuscitate (DNR) order. A type of advance directive in which a person states that health care providers should not attempt to restart the heart through cardiopulmonary resuscitation if the heart or breathing stops.
  • End-of-life doula, also known as a death doula. An individual who provides nonmedical comfort and support to a dying person and their family. This may include education and guidance as well as emotional, spiritual or practical care.
  • Extended care. Short-term or temporary care in a rehabilitation hospital or nursing home with the goal of returning a patient home.
  • Geriatric care manager, also called an aging life care professional. A specialist who assesses a person’s mental, physical, environmental and financial conditions to create a care plan to assist in arranging housing, medical, social and other services.
  • Geriatrician. A medical doctor who has completed a residency in either family medicine or internal medicine and focuses on older adults.
  • Guardianship. A court-sanctioned legal relationship in which a person is given legal authority over another when that other person is unable to make safe and sound decisions regarding his or her person or property.
  • Health care proxy. A type of durable power of attorney in which people appoint another person to make health care decisions for them if they become unable to do so.
  • Homemaker services. Light housekeeping, meal preparation, washing clothes, shopping and other tasks workers from state-certified agencies perform for people who need assistance in their homes. Medicare does not cover these services, but some states’ Medicaid programs help qualified low-income adults pay for them.
  • Hospice care. A treatment regime for people who have an advanced, life-limiting, often incurable illnesses. Considered a type of palliative care, hospice focuses on the patient’s psychological well-being and on managing symptoms of a disease rather than the disease itself, so they can spend their last days with dignity and quality, surrounded by loved ones.
  • Incontinence. Inability of a person’s body to control bowel or bladder functions.
  • Independent living. An age-restricted option for a house, condominium or apartment — sometimes offered as part of a continuing care retirement community — that has few services as part of the basic rate. Those that are included are more often related to convenience, such as grass cutting or a clubhouse.
  • Informed consent. The process of making decisions about medical care or medical experimentation based on open and honest communication among the health care provider, the patient and the patient’s family.
  • Licensed practical nurse (LPN). A person who has completed nursing or vocational training and obtained a state license that authorizes the person to take care of basic duties in settings such as hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
  • Long-term care insurance. Coverage that helps policyholders pay for long-term care in their home or at a nursing home or assisted living facility, or for other designated services, depending on the policy.
  • Memory cafe. A gathering place that provides a safe and supportive environment where individuals with dementia or other brain disorders and their caregivers can socialize, provide mutual support and exchange information.
  • Memory care communities. Separate facilities or specialized units of an assisted living center that focus on helping people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, where the staff is specifically trained to deal with recall problems and other impairments.
  • Nurse practitioner (NP), also known as advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). A primary-care provider with graduate training in advanced practice nursing who has the authority to order tests, write referrals and prescribe medicines.
  • Nursing home. A public or private residential facility providing a high level of long-term personal or medical care for chronically ill, disabled and older people who are unable to care for themselves properly.
  • Oncologist. A medical doctor who specializes in cancer treatment.
  • Ophthalmology. A medical doctor who specializes in eye disorders and surgery.
  • Orthopedic surgeon or orthopedist. A medical doctor who specializes in bone and connective tissue disorders.
  • Osteopath (DO), also called a doctor of osteopathic medicine. A doctor who has completed four years of medical school and has had 300 to 500 additional hours in the study of hands-on manual medicine and the body’s musculoskeletal system. These doctors are state licensed and may have completed a two- to six-year residency and passed state examinations to become board certified.
  • Palliative care. Specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Unlike hospice care, which is typically given to people with terminal conditions who are nearing the end of life, palliative care can coincide with treatments to arrest or cure a disease.
  • Patient advocate. A professional who can resolve concerns about someone’s health care experience, particularly problems that cannot be taken care of immediately.
  • Personal care services (PCS). A broad term used to refer to help with personal hygiene and other self-care, such as bathing, dressing, eating, going to the bathroom, maintaining personal appearance and walking, provided by in-home personal care aides (PCAs). Some PCAs also help with meal preparation, grocery shopping and money management.
  • Physician assistant (PA). A health care professional with a master’s degree who works in collaboration with a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathic medicine, often in a primary care setting.
  • Radiologist. A medical doctor who specializes in X-rays and related procedures such as computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound tests.
  • Registered nurse (RN). A health professional who has graduated from a nursing program, passed a state board examination and has a state license.
  • Rehabilitation hospital. A medical facility providing therapy and training for the restoration of physical function or cognitive skills following a serious injury, illness or medical event (such as a stroke).
  • Respite care. Short-term or temporary care of a sick, disabled or older person for a few hours, days or weeks, designed to provide relief to the regular caregiver.
  • Rheumatologist. A medical doctor who specializes in pain and other symptoms related to joints and other parts of the musculoskeletal system, such as bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons.
  • Senior center. A physical location providing opportunities for older adults to get active, enjoy various social activities and improve their overall quality of life.
  • Skilled care. Nursing or rehabilitation services that a doctor orders and that licensed health professionals such as nurses and physical therapists provide.
  • Sundown syndrome or sundowning. A state of confusion that occurs later in the afternoon and into the night. It is most often found in patients who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and includes a range of behaviors such as increased confusion, anxiety, agitation and sleeplessness.
  • Vital signs. Signs of life — specifically, a person’s heart rate (pulse), breathing rate, body temperature and blood pressure. They show doctors how well a person’s body is functioning.

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