Your loved one is unique, and so are their care needs. To find the best senior living fit, you’ll need to understand all the available options and the key differences between them.
Elder care exists on a spectrum. On one end is independent living, a type of senior housing designed for independent, active seniors who are interested in communal living and activities without the stress of home maintenance or chores.
One step further is assisted living. Assisted living communities offer the same benefits as independent living but also provide more comprehensive care for seniors who need assistance with activities of daily living, like dressing, bathing, and preparing meals.
Take a closer look at independent living versus assisted living to compare amenities, services, and more.
Accommodations in independent living vs. assisted living
Independent living communities generally offer small homes or apartments with full amenities, including kitchens. Assisted living communities offer apartments with more limited amenities and increased safety features.
Housing options in independent living
The independent living category encompasses a wide range of housing arrangements, from apartment-style communities to housing co-ops. Generally, though, residents live in their own private dwelling spaces and have access to common areas where they can gather with other members of the community.
Here are some other ways people refer to independent living:
- Active adult community
- Senior apartment complex
- Retirement community
- 55+ community
- Retirement home
Because this option is designed for seniors who can still live independently, the features and amenities in individual units are comparable to those in a typical small home, townhouse, or apartment.
Housing options in assisted living
The standard assisted living arrangement is apartment-style. Many facilities offer various floor plans, including studios, one-bedroom units, and apartments with multiple bedrooms. Individual units may or may not be equipped with a kitchenette, but appliances are generally limited due to safety concerns. Rooms also typically have safety and accessibility features like grab bars and emergency call buttons.
Assisted living communities with specialized memory care units for seniors with cognitive impairment often feature increased security measures. These may include locks and surveillance equipment or supervision at main entrances.
Care and services in independent vs. assisted living
A key difference between assisted living and independent living communities is the level of medical and supportive care offered.
Independent living services
Independent living facilities aim to make their residents’ day-to-day lives easier, thus enabling them to live on their own for as long as possible. The services independent living provides are aimed at minimizing seniors’ daily responsibilities, not providing medical care or hands-on assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs).
Landscaping, laundry and housekeeping services, on-site dining facilities, and security surveillance are the typical offerings in these settings. However, they do not have full-time staff dedicated to providing custodial care or medical care.
Assisted living services
Assisted living is geared toward aging adults who need some assistance with ADLs, such as bathing and dressing, and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs) like laundry and medication management.
Staff members, including at least one medical professional (typically a certified nurse practitioner), are on call 24 hours a day in most residences. However, assisted living communities typically don’t provide intensive hands-on care or skilled nursing care for older adults with serious mental or physical ailments.
Independent and assisted living amenities
Both independent living and assisted living communities offer social and recreational opportunities that are unique to their residents’ needs and abilities. Common activities include game nights, field trips, support and discussion groups, happy hours, holiday celebrations, exercise classes, and continuing education courses. Both types of communities also provide transportation services for shuttling residents to and from doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, and other errands.
The difference between independent living and assisted living community design
Independent living communities may look like traditional apartment buildings or even small subdivisions with communal amenities scattered throughout the campus, while assisted living facilities tend to be more centralized in one building, with amenities incorporated into residential spaces.
Independent living community design
Independent living communities tend to be designed like traditional apartment buildings, housing campuses, or neighborhoods with communal areas for dining and activities. In suburban or rural areas, there may be more outdoor space between buildings, requiring residents to move between their own small homes and a dining hall, community center, or gym.
Apartment-style independent living communities may have multiple floors like high-rise buildings. However, they generally feature elevator access and other amenities for residents with mobility issues.
Assisted living community design
Most assisted living communities are fairly self-contained, with a few buildings designed to fill all resident needs. Dining and activity areas may be located in the same building as apartments, and most communities have single-floor buildings with widened doorways and low thresholds to accommodate residents with mobility concerns.
Assisted living facilities that also offer memory care may have a separate secured wing designed for residents with dementia.
The difference between assisted living and independent living for families
You care for your loved one and want to be a part of their life, but it’s also important to keep your own needs in mind. Families who aren’t able to care for a relative at home may choose assisted living for loved ones who are no longer able to live on their own.
That said, family interaction can greatly benefit a senior’s health and emotional well-being, so involvement in activities or meals at an assisted or independent living community is welcome.
Family involvement in independent living
In an independent living community, primary decision-making is generally the responsibility of the resident. However, family members are encouraged to take part in community activities, dining programs, and more. Think of it like visiting a relative in their own home, plus the added benefits of community life.
Family members may be invited to resident events or holiday parties and can often choose to spend the night at their loved one’s apartment.
Family involvement in assisted living
Family members may take a more active role in care planning when a loved one resides in an assisted living community. Authorized relatives may receive updates or reports on a senior’s care and medical status to keep them informed.
Relatives and friends may also be invited to join loved ones for meals and events, and they can even volunteer their time to help with activities. Keep in mind that some assisted living communities have set visiting hours or rules about overnight stays.
Cost of assisted living vs. independent living
Both independent and assisted living are generally priced using a base rate system with the option to add services and amenities for extra fees. While independent living is generally paid for out of pocket, some financial assistance options do exist for seniors who need assisted living.
Independent living costs
Rent and utilities represent the core costs for independent living residents. Aging adults who live in communities that offer luxury amenities and specialized recreational opportunities, like private golf courses or swim clubs, may incur additional expenses in the form of membership or joining fees.
Different meal plans are usually available for on-site dining, and additional costs may be involved, depending on services and add-ons. Many independent living providers offer all-inclusive pricing to make it easier for residents to pay their bills and remain involved in their communities.
Since independent living communities don’t provide residents with medical services, Medicare, Medicaid, long-term care insurance, and other financial aid programs generally won’t cover the cost. Instead, seniors must pay privately using funds from Social Security benefits, pension income, retirement savings, life settlements, annuities, and other personal funds.
Seniors who need specialized or one-on-one care can usually hire in-home care to supplement the services that a community offers. Of course, this will increase costs, but the addition may enable a senior to remain in their current home and prevent or delay moving to a different setting with a higher level of care, such as an assisted living facility or nursing home.
Assisted living costs
The base rate for most assisted living communities includes rent, utilities, and basic services like meals and housekeeping.
Again, additional services will come with additional costs. According to Genworth’s annual Cost of Care Survey, the median monthly cost of a private one-bedroom apartment in assisted living is $4,500. However, even the base rates for senior living vary widely depending on geographic location, staff-to-resident ratio, and amenities.
Because assisted living communities provide a greater amount of assistance, there are more options available for helping cover costs. Residents can pay for assisted living using savings and personal funds, as well as certain long-term care insurance policies and Aid and Attendance benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Medicare does not cover assisted living, but Medicaid offers some financial assistance for low-income seniors. Keep in mind that Medicaid eligibility requirements and coverage rules vary from state to state.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers low-income seniors help with paying for both independent and assisted living through the Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8) and Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program, respectively. However, because of high demand for these programs, the waiting lists are often very long.