With the baby boomer population reaching retirement, the number and diversity of senior communities has grown exponentially in the last decade. The wealth of options is a positive trend, but it can also be overwhelming.
If you’re contemplating the transition to a senior community, either for yourself or a loved one, you’ll often encounter the terms independent living and assisted living. In this article, we’ll define each of these terms, so you understand the level of care provided in each type of community. With this knowledge, you can make more informed decisions about what living arrangement will work best – for now and well into the future.
What is independent living?
As the name suggests, independent living communities are for seniors age 55 and older who want to live independently, but with the reassurance of knowing help is available. Most seniors who choose independent living have been safe, happy, and healthy in their own homes. However, they wanted to downsize and enjoy a community of their peers. In many cases, seniors move to independent living because they realized living alone would pose dangers to their health as they got older. Or that maintaining a single home would become too costly and difficult.
Independent living communities vary in their size and building arrangement. They could be large apartment complexes or individual townhomes and condominiums. They appear no different than any other housing option, other than the fact that residents are seniors.
What services do independent living communities provide?
Every community is quite different, and the levels of services will affect the monthly cost and initial fees. Here are examples of amenities you might find in an independent living community:
- Hair salon & barber shop
- Concierge services
- Game/TV room
- Golf course
- Healthcare center
- Private rental hall
- Housekeeping and laundry service
- Restaurant-style dining hall
- Fitness center
- Swimming pool
- Sports and exercise programs
- Computer labs
- Gardens and walk/biking paths
- Organized travel/day trips
- Day spas
One of the biggest perks of independent living communities is the social, interactive atmosphere. In fact, many studies have found that seniors who live in independent living communities, instead of staying at home alone, are much less likely to deal with loneliness, isolation and depression.
How much does independent living cost?
The monthly fees for independent living vary mainly due to size and location. The average cost ranges from $1,500 to $3,500 per month. Some communities require an entrance fee, also called a "buy-in" fee, while others only require monthly rent. Like any long-term-care option, independent living costs and options vary by area. It’s important to explore each facility, ask questions, and read over agreements carefully.
Rent and utilities represent the primary cost for independent living residents. Communities that offer specialized recreational opportunities like private golf courses may charge additional expenses such as membership and/or joining fees. Different meal plans are usually available for on-site dining, and additional costs may be involved depending on the mix of services and add-ons chosen.
Medicare, Medicaid, and other financial aid programs won't cover the cost since independent living communities do not provide medical care. Instead, seniors must pay privately, using funds from Social Security benefits, pension income, retirement savings, life settlements, reverse mortgage funds, annuities and other personal funds.
What are some alternatives to independent living communities?
Cohousing is a concept that’s growing in appeal, especially for seniors or aging baby boomers. In a cohousing community, residents live privately in condos or attached homes, but share certain properties or amenities with other residents. In addition to social gatherings, cohousing residents will also have more formal meetings where they discuss the management of the community. For seniors, one of the key benefits is an ever-present support system. In the community environment of cohousing, everyone is looking out for one another, providing peace of mind that isn’t always there with other independent senior living options.
You might also consider senior apartments. The benefits of senior apartments include planned activities such as exercise classes, movie nights, card game parties, and local day-trips. They also typically have extra security measures such as cameras and emergency alert systems. Some have security-patrolled grounds and even security guards posted at entryways. The biggest difference from senior communities is that they generally do not include meals and housekeeping as part of your rent.
What is assisted living?
While independent living communities focus on allowing seniors to live entirely on their own, assisted living communities are usually the next step for individuals who need more support to be safe and maintain a high quality of life. Just like independent living, seniors have a private space with access to community amenities. However, the difference is the level of care. For some seniors, this just means getting help with cooking and cleaning. For others, it may mean assistance with personal care.
In many cases, the decision to choose assisted living is prompted by a recent fall or deteriorating condition. Home care may not be enough. Seniors or their caregivers find that a community, with 24-hour supervision, would provide a safer environment.
For seniors hesitant to give up their independence, they’ll be happy to find that many of these communities come with private apartments, so they can still have all the comforts of home. Assisted living facilities are designed as private communities, much like an apartment complex.
What services do assisted living communities provide?
Just like independent living, the services can vary. Generally, they include:
- Daily living activities (bathing, dressing, grooming, and other personal care)
- Dining and meal preparation
- Health, wellness, and exercise programs
- Supervision and 24-hour emergency response
- Transportation services
- Social, educational, recreational, or religious activities
- Assistance with medications
- Housekeeping and laundry
Most of these communities also have a calendar full of events that seniors can choose to participate in at their leisure. For many, the biggest benefit of these communities lies in the social aspect. Clubs, outings, games, and community activities can all help seniors feel welcomed while forming lasting friendships in their new homes.
Despite the added support, don’t confuse an assisted living community with a nursing home. Nursing homes provide more frequent and comprehensive personal care services than assisted living facilities. They also provide easier access to medical staff and often have a skilled nursing unit within the facility.
How much does assisted living cost?
According to a survey conducted by CareScout in June 2017, the national average cost per month for a private one-bedroom in an assisted living facility was $3,750. This figure is expected to rise to over $5,000 in the next ten years. The most important way to keep costs down is to review the level of care. Some communities offer both an all-inclusive package and care on an as-needed basis. Choosing the correct right level of care can save a significant amount of money over time.
Although Medicare won’t pay for assisted living, most state Medicaid programs provide some assistance. It varies greatly, so it’s important to talk to your local representative. You can also check out this State by State Guide to Medicaid Benefits for Assisted Living. Assisted living expenses are most frequently paid for out-of-pocket or by a combination of other methods such as Social Security, pensions, Veterans benefits, insurance, home equity, and various savings.
What are some alternatives to assisted living communities?
Many seniors are resistant to moving from home, and understandably so. Home care agencies can provide a measure of safety and comfort to your loved one, providing the personal care they need. Alternatively, you might explore adult day care programs. Adult day care is a great option for seniors who are living at home with loved ones and require supervision and positive social interaction during the day. Combining the two services can be an option to keep your senior safe at home but also provide the stimulation necessary for a good quality of life.
Residential care homes are another alternative to assisted living. They offer personalized service in a smaller, home-like environment. They typically provide services to less than ten residents, which may feel more comfortable for seniors who are nervous about moving into senior care. Care homes offer a private or semi-private room, meal preparation, housekeeping, laundry, social programs, medication management and transportation. However, they do not typically have a medical professional on-site.
Independent Living or Assisted Living – Can You Have Both?
There are numerous senior communities that offer both independent living and assisted living on one campus. This is beneficial for spouses with different care needs, individuals who know they’ll need more care soon, or those who want to make a more permanent move. There are also Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), which offer a combination of independent living apartments, assisted living units and skilled nursing care on one campus. CCRC residents can transition to other areas within the community that will serve their increasing care needs. This is ideal for seniors with a progressive illness or those who want to have the reassurance that they’ll never have the disruption and cost of moving again.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of both independent living and assisted living. Plus, a bit more clarity on which setting would suit your needs. There are more options than ever before, so finding a good fit just requires research, time, and asking lots of questions.