The world of senior living can feel like uncharted territory — unfamiliar, with its own unique language and rules. Seniors in fair or good health may be uncertain about the distinction between assisted living and independent living. Both options can foster independence, ease caregiver stress, and help seniors live longer, healthier lives. You can have a private apartment or condo in each living arrangement, but there are also important differences that can help guide your decision. Here’s an overview of the basics.

Assisted Living vs. Independent Living

Assisted living and independent living are two common types of senior living communities. Though there are similarities between the two vibrant living options, there are also key differences that can make your personal choice a bit easier.

Assisted living communities offer caregiver support and assistance with activities of daily living, including dressing, grooming, showering, mobility, and medication management. This around-the-clock caregiver presence is often the biggest differentiating factor between assisted and independent living options.

A residential alternative to a nursing home, an assisted living community typically has between 25-120 living apartments, varying in size from a single room to multiple bedrooms with a kitchen.

Medical staff at these communities create a regularly updated service plan detailing the personalized services such as bathing, dressing, or medication management that each resident offers. 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

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.  For a more detailed explanation of what assisted living is, read our What is Assisted Living guide.

Independent living communities offer the same maintenance-free living as assisted living, but without the 24-hour support from trained caregivers and nurses.

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, and 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.

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, residents can socialize with each other in game rooms, libraries, computer rooms, business centers, and so on.

Differences in Medical and Supportive Care Services

Assisted living is a good alternative for people who are no longer able to live alone, but do not need intensive nursing care. Independent living preserves a senior’s independence and does not provide access to medical or nursing care.

Independent living can provide some peace of mind to people who no longer feel comfortable living alone. People with medical conditions that do not undermine the basic activities of daily living may thrive in this environment. But when people are no longer able to tend to their basic needs, make good decisions on their own, or function without the help of loved ones, assisted living offers medical support.

Support Provided in Assisted Living

Seniors living in assisted living communities need some degree of support. This may mean something as simple as regular check-ins with a staff member or more extensive support such as help with bathing and grooming.

In many cases, seniors who choose assisted living communities have progressive health conditions such as Parkinson’s, dementia, or cancer. They may eventually need more extensive care, so many assisted living communities offer options to transition to nursing or dementia care. In some cases, a senior may be able to continue living in the same place even as their needs change.

To ensure residents are receiving the support they need to feel their best, assisted living communities offer different levels of care based on how much assistance with activities of daily living a resident needs. Activities of daily living are tasks we all do to manage our basic needs, including dressing/grooming, bathing, incontinence management, toileting, mobility, transferring, and eating. The more assistance a resident might need with these tasks, the higher the level of support they will require.

Support Provided in Independent Living

Residents living in an independent living community do not receive daily support or assistance from caregivers, which means there are not designated levels of support in most independent living communities. However, residents do enjoy a maintenance-free lifestyle thanks to services that take care of housekeeping tasks, lawn maintenance, laundry and linen services, security surveillance, and other amenities in their community.

Some independent living communities are associated with assisted living and similar options. But many seniors in independent living communities will lead long and healthy lives without the need for additional care. Therefore, it is less common for independent living providers to offer an extensive continuum of care.

Differences in Community Life Between Assisted Living and Independent Living

Life in assisted and independent living features opportunities for socializing, making new friends, and experiencing new adventures. Communities employ Life Enrichment team members who create monthly event calendars packed full of trips, events, and group activities that are meant to encourage socialization and past leisure pursuits. Events are geared to support overall wellness and include everything from exercise classes to cooking demonstrations.

Community Design

There are a few differences you might see between independent living and assisted living communities in the actual layout of the residences. For example, independent living communities often are built as campuses with homes and buildings connected with pathways to the main areas of the community, such as the on-site restaurant, pool, or other shared spaces.

Assisted living communities tend to be a bit smaller, and typically the apartment homes and shared community spaces are in one building. There are still walking paths, gazebos, and other outdoor areas to enjoy, but having everything within a short walk or elevator ride can be quite convenient for the residents who live there.

Differences in Amenities and Programming

Amenities and services at both independent living and assisted living communities are designed to suit the needs, interests, and abilities of the residents who live there. You’ll find similar amenities such as on-site salons, restaurants, and outdoor spaces for everyone to enjoy. Similar services include housekeeping, transportation, and laundry services.

Independent living communities can offer a wealth of entertainment and recreational opportunities, such as movie events, book clubs, or gardening programs. Some also provide health and wellness options such as fitness centers, exercise programs, and walking paths. Other possible amenities include cafes, concierge services, and 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.

When it comes to dining, you’ll find that most independent living communities offer flexible dining plans including no more than 1-2 meals per day in the dining room. More often than not, residents must pay additional fees to eat in the dining room or restaurant rather than have all meals included in their rent.

Assisted living communities, however, offer three meals per day at no additional cost. Meals are prepared under the direction of a chef and with individual residents’ medical and nutritional needs taken into account. Assisted living communities offer specialized diets to accommodate medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Even better, snacks are also offered throughout the day.

Differences in Family Involvement

Family involvement is encouraged in both assisted living and independent living communities. Family members are welcome to visit, attend meals, or even throw parties with their loved ones.

As seniors age, it’s typical for family members to become more involved in care decisions. There’s no substitute for the involvement of someone who loves and knows you, but caregiver burnout and depression are very real. Independent living can offer some peace of mind to caregivers because these communities ensure that seniors are neither isolated nor afraid. However, families may have to continue to provide support to seniors with health issues.

Assisted living, by contrast, relieves family members of any caregiving responsibilities. The community and its staff are there to anticipate and meet the needs of seniors even as those needs change. This means that caregivers don’t have to worry about their senior loved ones’ needs going unmet. They may find that this improves their relationship with the senior and reduces their level of stress.

Cost of Independent Living vs. Assisted Living

Independent senior living communities are about lifestyle preferences and are not considered a form of senior care. This means that they’re typically more affordable, but they are also unlikely to be covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or long-term care insurance.

Assisted living, by contrast, greatly expands upon the level of support a senior can expect at home. Because of these more extensive services, assisted living tends to be more costly than independent living. Assisted living costs are also more likely to be covered by long-term care insurance, employee benefits programs, and Medicaid. A doctor’s prescription or other medical orders may be required to get coverage, so check the details of your insurance or long-term care plan.

Ways to Pay for Independent Living and Assisted Living

Independent living residents typically pay a monthly fee that includes their rent and all services or amenities enjoyed in the community. Residents can cover this monthly cost by using their retirement or Social Security income, money from the sale of their home, pension income, or other personal funds.

Assisted living communities also typically bill residents a monthly fee that includes rent, amenities, services, and care support. However, although residents can pay with personal funds, they may also be able to offset the costs with long-term care insurance or VA Aid and Attendance benefits. Medicaid can also offset costs for low-income seniors, but not all senior living communities accept this type of payment.

Choosing Between Independent Living and Assisted Living

Many factors can go into your decision as you choose between independent living and assisted living options. If you aren’t sure which one might be best for you now and in the future, speak with your physician. You can also get personalized results by taking our Senior Living Options quiz, which can point you in the right direction as you begin researching types of communities.

In all cases, it’s important to remember that the benefits of living among welcoming neighbors and having wellness resources at your fingertips are found in both independent living and assisted living communities. Good luck as you make your decision!

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