After years of living in a beloved home, making the decision to downsize can be emotionally difficult to say the least, but once a senior is ready to relocate, there’s yet one other crucial choice to make—namely, where to go. Although there are various housing options, two of the most popular ones for older adults are independent living and assisted living communities.

So what are the difference and how can you understand them? 

Understanding Independent Living

Independent living is designed for seniors who are still active and require little to no support with the activities of daily living (e.g., cooking, personal hygiene, managing medications, money management). This type of housing comes in many forms, ranging from continuing care communities, which offer a spectrum of care, to 55-plus apartment complexes to condos or even free-standing homes. “In general, the housing is friendlier to older adults—it’s more compact, easier to navigate, and includes help with outside maintenance,” points out Helpguide.org. It can be a great option for those who would like to put most of their energy into recreational and social activities rather than taking care of a house.

Independent living also offers the social benefits of living in a community, which may be especially meaningful to older adults who have lived alone in a house for years. Although community members have their own units, a big feature is the plethora of common areas; in addition to a common dining hall, members can socialize with others in game rooms, libraries, computer rooms, business centers or the like.

Not surprisingly, independent living communities offer a wealth of entertainment and recreational opportunities, such as movie theatres, book clubs or gardening programs. Some also provide health and wellness options like fitness centers, exercise programs and walking paths. Other possible amenities include beauty salons or spas, cafes, concierge services, even craft or art studios. Although residents may still own a car, these communities typically supply bus or taxi services for doctor visits or shopping trips.

They also usually have built-in safety and security measures, and, although most independent living communities do not have full-time medical staff, members may be able to pay for some home health care services as well as housekeeping and laundry services.

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Understanding Assisted Living

In some cases, though, a senior needs more personal care services than family and friends can provide—and that’s where assisted living comes in. A residential alternative to a nursing home, an assisted living community typically has between 25 and 120 living apartments, varying in size from a single room to a multiple bedrooms with a kitchen. Although some residences are furnished, generally speaking, residents bring their own furniture to personalize their apartment. As with independent living communities, assisted living residences come with a dining room or restaurant and plenty of other common areas.

Medical staff at these communities create a regularly updated service plan detailing the personalized services such as the bathing, dressing or medication management that each resident requires. In addition, residents are typically provided with:

  •       Three meals per day plus snacks
  •       Housekeeping and laundry services
  •       An emergency call system and 24-hour security
  •       Exercise and wellness programs
  •       Social and recreational activities
  •       Transportation services for scheduled outings and medical appointments

Some assisted living communities contain special memory care areas on a separate wing or floor. The staff are specially trained to assist people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, and the layout and security of these units is designed to minimize wandering.

Although assisted living communities don't provide intensive hands-on care for older adults with serious mental or physical ailments, staff members are on-call 24 hours a day in most residences.Argentum (formerly the Assisted Living Federation of America), points out that although assisted living is relatively new it is now the fastest growing long-term care option for seniors.

Although there are definite similarities between assisted living and independent living, which one to choose generally boils down to how much support a senior needs.

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