WHEN seniors and their families discover the senior needs services related to health and a living situation, where can they turn? More specifically, what is the best starting point to begin the search for appropriate resources and solutions?

The easy answer is to contact one of the many service providers; information, referral and assistance programs; or to try Web sites or Internet-based employee assistance programs that many jobs provide.

Some people are clear about what they need and want and can identify it after a short, satisfying search. But it's usually not that simple.

Frequently they start with the Yellow Pages or a resource someone gives them. Often that resource is not what they need. Then they get referred to a series of 10 or 20 organizations and become confused and frustrated. Not having experience or training, they may be unclear about what kinds of services they need and what's available out there.

Baby boomer children of seniors, who often are Internet-savvy, can conduct systematic research until they clarify the options and present a short list to their parent. Many seniors, on the other hand, prefer to make a direct call and ask for the information and assistance they need. Sometimes this works — for example, if they contact a service that specializes in helping seniors clarify their needs, follows up with one or more providers, and redirects their course if they get stuck.

If the senior or family are overwhelmed, it helps to find a professional who can advise and support them as they sort out their preferences, financial resources and eligibility for certain services. Staff of public, private nonprofit and fee-for-service organizations can provide some or all of the guidance they need.

Anyone starting out on such a search can hope for a quick, successful outcome but should prepare for a more daunting, drawn-out process. We see this with people who are finally referred to us for professional care management just as they were ready to throw up their hands in defeat because no one they spoke with was familiar with care management services.

A few tips for finding what you need:

-Find a resource that will provide more than just a list. You need to learn why that list is appropriate for you and how to narrow down and evaluate the providers on the list.

-Do your homework and trust your gut feelings. Get at least a second opinion from somebody who knows the situation. If you can, try a program or service before making a long-term commitment. For example, don't sell your house if you don't have to until you settle in and decide that your new assisted living arrangement will work for you.

-Be realistic about your options. Just as with other aspects of your life, you seek what is right for you, not what is guaranteed to be perfect.

-If you get discouraged, ask someone to help you get started on your search again. It's not necessarily your problem that you had trouble navigating around a vast, unfamiliar network of services.

These resources can be starting points because they maintain comprehensive information and might spend a little time with inquirers.

Information and assistance services: Alameda County ((510) 577-3530), Contra Costa County ((925) 335-8720), San Mateo County ((800) 675-8437), San Joaquin County ((209) 468-1104). Family Caregiver Alliance ((800) 445-8106); Alzheimer's Association ((800) 660-1993).

Internet Network of Care sites: alameda.networkofcare.org, contracosta.networkofcare.org, sanmateo.networkofcare.org, sanjoaquin.networkofcare.org.

Publications: Resource guides are provided by information and assistance services mentioned above. Ask whether listed organizations are limited to certain statuses or have paid to be included.

Sandra J. Cohen, R.N., and Roger Cormier are elder care managers who help families plan and coordinate care of an older relative at home or in a care facility. You can reach them at (510) 652-3377 or (925) 945-8855 or visit

www.eldercaremanagers.com.