As people age, they often consider relocating to simplify their living arrangements. Seniors who are still physically and mentally capable of living independently and would enjoy the companionship of others their age should consider moving to an independent living (IL) community. IL communities promote active lifestyles in a secure environment and provide specific services for low-maintenance living and on-site amenities for socialization and recreation.

To determine if an aging loved one is a good candidate for independent living, consider these questions:

  • Are they in good health?
  • Can they manage medications and doctor’s appointments on their own?
  • Do they need assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs)?
  • Would they enjoy living in a community with their peers?
  • Are they interested in “hassle-free” living?
  • Would they prefer the extra security provided by these communities?
  • Can they afford to buy or rent in an independent living community? If not, would they qualify for low-income senior housing?

If a senior cannot care for themselves without assistance, then they are not a good fit for an IL community. Instead, an assisted living facility or a nursing home would be a more suitable living option since these settings provide higher levels of care, such as assistance with ADLs.

If an independent living community sounds like a good fit, it’s important to understand the three major types of communities and the key differences between each of them before going on tours.

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  1. Retirement Communities
    These housing communities usually offer the least services, therefore it is considered the most independent option on the IL spectrum. Retirement communities are exactly what they sound like: neighborhoods for independent and active retirees who want to live among their peers. These settings may also be referred to as active adult, age-qualified or age-restricted communities. Ages 55 and 62 are common minimum cut-offs for residents in age-specific neighborhoods.
    Grounds maintenance is usually the only service provided, while things like cooking and household cleaning are still done by the residents. Amenities may include a clubhouse, pool, tennis courts, a fitness center, transportation services, a golf course, security guards, and even an on-site restaurant. Social activities are usually organized by the residents.
    Homes in retirement communities can be single-family houses, condominiums, townhomes or modular buildings. Although it depends on the particular community, seniors usually own their home individually. If renting is an option in the retirement community, it is usually done by renting from an individual owner or renting as part of a co-op. In some cases, these communities are run by a homeowners’ association and charge HOA fees for maintenance of the community and its amenities. A paid membership may also be necessary in order to use amenities in more upscale communities.
  2. Senior Apartments
    Other names for these communities include independent living communities/facilities and senior living communities. Senior apartments are usually part of a facility that provides varying levels of care, ranging from independent living to assisted living, and sometimes including memory care and skilled nursing care.
    Services such as housekeeping, laundry and transportation are usually offered and residents even have the option of eating in the community dining room rather than cooking for themselves. Additional safety and security features are also common in senior housing facilities, simply because staff is generally available around the clock. According to Connie Hamin, marketing director for Heritage Woods Senior Living Community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, many senior apartments are equipped with emergency pull-cord systems in each room that allow residents to alert the staff of an emergency or if they need assistance.
    Senior apartments can be an ideal choice for active seniors who desire a “maintenance-free” lifestyle. They are still able to maintain their independence while having the added luxury of services that minimize their responsibilities and allow them to enjoy the community’s amenities and activities.
    Senior apartments are similar to assisted living, but residents must be able to dress and bathe themselves, do their own laundry and handle their medications. If an elder needs assistance with medications and/or personal care, but wants to remain in independent living, they can use an in-home care company to receive this extra care. Technically, the senior is no longer capable of independent living, but bringing in outside help allows them to maintain this status in their community.
  3. Low-Income Housing
    Other names for these settings include affordable senior housing, government-subsidized housing, public housing and supportive housing.
    This kind of senior living is similar to senior apartment facilities, but rent is always below market rate. This is possible because rental rates are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There are a few different housing subsidy programs and settings that seniors can take advantage of, but each has financial and functional requirements that must be met in order to qualify. These requirements tend to vary by state, and wait lists are also common for these housing programs.

Who Pays for Independent Living?

Unless a senior is eligible for low-income or government-subsidized housing, he or she is responsible for footing the bill. Medicaid, Medicare and long-term care insurance do not cover any of the costs for independent living. Houses or condominiums in these communities are either bought by the elder or they are monthly rentals that are paid for privately.

Association fees are another financial issue that need to be considered. Most communities charge fees and they can be one-time, yearly, quarterly or monthly. These association fees cover many different costs for maintaining the lifestyle expected in independent living, including community and building maintenance, activities and any extra services.

By relocating to an independent living community, seniors can maintain or strengthen their quality of life and live in a more secure environment. Additionally, adult children can have peace of mind knowing that their parents are safe and engaged in their community.