Independent Living vs. Assisted Living: What’s the Difference?

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

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When most people think of being independent, they think of living at home on their own. As the aging population increases, the development of independent senior living communities has grown in kind. When it comes to finding care for aging adults, companies are heeding the call with a diversity of options.

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Along with more independent living choices, assisted living communities are also growing. People are looking to stay as independent for as long as possible, but at times assisted living may be the best option for supportive care. Often, it comes down to what is the most cost-effective way to keep someone healthy and happy.

Independent Living vs. Assisted Living: What Type of Care Do You Receive?

Independent senior living and assisted living tend to be very different facilities, although they may exist in the same community. There are three main types of independent senior living and each type dictates the kind of care you can receive.

ยป MORE: How do you support a loved one through loss? Help them follow our post-loss checklist.

 

Independent Living Types

Independent senior living covers a wide range of communities, each with its own amenities, social structures, as well as care options available.

Retirement communities

Retirement communities are known as housing communities for aging people from the ages of 55 to 62 and above. Some famous examples include the large communities built by Del Webb. Sun City in Arizona is the original Del Webb community.

Other developers across the country have built senior living communities to appeal to active seniors who want a ready-made social environment. Even Jimmy Buffet has gotten into the act with his Margaritaville resort communities. Overall, you can see the defining characteristics of these communities as the following:

  • You own your home. Most of these communities require you to buy or build your place of residence.
  • Activities and amenities can be extensive and include everything from swimming pools to pickleball courts and much more. 
  • There is an emphasis on “independent active” lifestyle.
  • You will need to arrange any additional care that you need through in-home care or home health.

Not all retirement communities follow the Del Webb or Margaritaville model. For example, some communities are in an urban setting where independent living facilities give residents options to take college courses and attend cultural events. These types are called University-Based Retirement Communities, where seniors live in planned developments that have a contractual relationship with the college or university they are located near. 

Other retirement communities may follow a mobile home park model where each person purchases their mobile home. These communities are usually 55+ and don’t provide any kind of care. In these cases, you will need to arrange that yourself on a private pay basis.

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC)

Continuing Care Retirement Communities are a “soup to nuts” model of offering all the care you may need in one location. There is independent, assisted, memory care, and nursing home care. Most people start in independent living and then move to a higher level of care when needed, all within one community or location. 

In CCRC independent living there might be shared amenities, but you are considered independent in your care needs. Some CCRCs may offer in-home care through contracted companies, but you can also hire your own.

Independent living as a part of assisted living

Independent living as part of assisted living offers the most support. This means meals, housekeeping, transportation, and activities are amenities included in your monthly fee. Aide service in some cases can be contracted separately through the community as an add-on.

Assisted living

Many assisted living facilities provide higher levels of support and care than any of the aforementioned independent living choices. You might see the following support services as part of an assisted living community:

  • Nursing offered Monday through Friday and sometimes on weekends, however it is not a 24/7 service like in nursing homes.
  • Aides are available to assist with bathing, transfers, dressing, and other tasks as assigned. 
  • Meals and snacks are included.
  • Transportation to medical appointments. Many assisted living communities offer physician services on site.
  • A social calendar and activities.

Tip: Read our guide on alternatives to assisted living if you're not sure if it's right for you or a loved one.

Independent Living vs. Assisted Living: Who Are They For?

Independent living could be considered a stepping stone to more supportive care later. Each one provides different support levels, but can fit a myriad of other interests like social interaction and less household responsibilities.

Who is independent living for?

Independent living is for people who are physically and medically stable enough to manage without supportive care offered by the community. People can stay in independent living even when they start to need help by hiring in-home caregivers. 

One of the main reasons families choose independent senior living is so they don’t have to continue maintaining a home. Even in retirement communities, there could be a Homeowners Association (HOA) fee that goes towards any maintenance issues. Landscaping is generally included, but you will want to find out how maintenance issues are handled and if there is an additional fee. 

Independent living residences offer apartments with full kitchens in addition to meal service. Social engagement opportunities are a part of independent living communities and many people like the flexibility of having their own space and mingling with others when they choose to. For many people, independent senior living is the best of both worlds.

Who is assisted living for?

Assisted living is for people who may need extra help or require 24-hour supervision.  Some people opt for this assistance in the home, but the complexities and cost of managing full-time caregivers can become too cumbersome and expensive. Also, if a person requires some nursing assistance or medication management, this can be taken care of by the assisted living facility.

Residents at assisted living facilities can require various degrees of help. Some will remain fairly independent but might benefit from having meals each day. Others need daily assistance with dressing, bathing, and mobility. 

If you have a family member who struggles to stay independent, assisted living might be a good option. Families often piece together the help someone needs through family caregiving and paid caregivers. At some point, there might be caregiver burnout or the cost of in-home care can exceed the cost of assisted living.

Other times, an aging parent refuses help from family members but may be more open to the kind of help available in assisted living. 

Independent Living vs. Assisted Living: What’s the Cost and How Do You Typically Pay for Care?

Like with all these options, long-term care can be costly depending on the place you choose as well as what you may need.

There are many options like long-term care insurance that can offset some costs as well as state and federal programs to help pay for some parts. However, it is individual to each person and what they want and what they may need down the line.

Cost of independent living

The cost of independent living is impossible to quantify due to the variety of options. For example, independent living in an assisted living community might be more like a rental situation. You pay monthly and can give 30 days’ notice to end the contract. 

In a retirement community, the cost of constructing or buying a home will depend upon the area where you live, the size of the home, and added features. Every community will be different. 

Most continuing care retirement communities are a “buy-in” where you pay a lump sum. According to AARP the average entrance fee is $329,000 but can run as high as a million or more. This fee covers your transition to assisted living and then nursing home care if you need it. Many communities have a monthly charge in addition to the entry fee.

Independent living is paid for privately through a combination of proceeds from the sale of a home, retirement income, and retirement accounts. If you have a long-term care insurance policy and qualify, the policy will pay a daily benefit towards care in independent living but doesn’t pay rent.  

Cost of assisted living

According to Genworth, the median monthly cost of community and assisted living across the country is $4,051. Costs continue to go up and yours could be higher or lower depending on where you live and the amount of care you or your family member needs. 

Many assisted living communities charge a monthly base rate and then have tiers or levels of care that add on costs.

People pay for assisted living with the same funding sources that they do for independent living. This includes savings, income, and retirement accounts. If someone has a long term care policy that too can help defray the cost of assisted living. Each policy varies in terms of the daily rate that will be paid and what the elimination period is. 

Independent Living vs. Assisted Living: What’s the Admissions Process Like?

The assisted living admissions process tends to be more extensive than independent due to individual state regulations on who can be admitted. A nurse usually does the admission assessment for assisted living and will consider several factors:

  • Can the nursing staff meet the person’s medical needs? If not, they may be better suited for a nursing home.
  • Evaluation of medications and medical history.
  • An assessment of functioning including the ability to bathe, dress, eat, and transfer independently. If assistance is needed in these areas, can the staff accommodate that need?
  • Are there memory problems or confusion that would be more appropriately handled in memory care? In that case, a referral is made to a memory care unit, or in some cases, an assisted living community might accept a resident on a trial basis.

Depending on the independent living situation, the admissions process might be handled by a marketing person. Unless a prospective resident has obvious medical conditions that might require additional help, a contract is signed for either purchase, build, or rent. Although most independent communities allow walkers, some may not permit motorized chairs.

Independent vs. Assisted Living

Deciding between independent and assisted living is not always easy. Knowing your options is the first step to making a good decision for your loved one. Discussing choices as a part of long-term care planning as a family can help lead to an outcome that everyone can feel good about.

If you're looking for more resources on care for aging adults, read our guides on the best senior care or our guide on cohousing.


Sources

  1. Hartocollis, Anemona. “At Colleges, What’s Old Is New: Retirees Living on Campus.” The New York Times. 9 September 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/us/college-university-retirement-communities.html 
  2. “How Continuing Care Communities Work.” Family Caregiving: Basics, AARP, 24 October 2019, www.aarp.org/caregiving/basics/info-2017/continuing-care-retirement-communities.html 

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