Caring for an ailing senior is exhausting work that can leave caregivers burned out. As a senior’s needs change, you may find yourself continually adding support services such as in-home care, daily check-ins, and home modifications. Although these services can improve your loved one’s quality of life, they are not always enough. When a senior has a progressive medical condition or serious health needs, assisted living or a nursing home may be the best option.Many families balk at the idea of transitioning mom or dad to residential care. They worry that they are abandoning their loved one or that a senior living community won’t meet their parent’s needs. But the truth is, most seniors experience an improvement in quality of life after moving. 

Your loved one will have the help and support they need, which may increase their independence. You’ll get a break from the stress of caregiving, and your loved one will gain access to new friends and a wide range of activities that are tailored to their needs. For example, a nursing home that specializes in dementia care may offer dementia-friendly activities such as music therapy and reminiscing sessions designed to increase cognition.

Assisted living is a great option for seniors who need extra support or who need assistance with day-to-day tasks. A nursing home, by contrast, offers more comprehensive support to seniors with extensive medical needs.

Here’s what you need to know about these two senior living solutions.

What Is Assisted Living?

Assisted living communities are not hospitals. They can, however, offer some medical services, help with diet and nutrition issues, and assist with incontinence. At most assisted living communities, a licensed nurse completes a comprehensive individualized assessment for each resident, and nursing staff is on-site or accessible 24 hours a day. 

Geriatricians and other healthcare professionals, such as dentists or chiropractors, will often see clients on-site. Some assisted living communities have even started offering physical and occupational therapy or wellness rooms supervised by licensed nurses.

Additionally, a number of communities offer specialized memory care units for those with cognitive difficulties. A memory care solution is ideal for someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, as staff members are trained in best practices of care and family members can get additional support and education.

It’s important to ask about the types of care the community offers, especially if your loved one has a chronic or progressive medical condition. Some assisted living communities provide a continuum of care by contracting with skilled nursing companies or offering an on-site nursing home for residents whose support needs change.

Similar to nursing homes, assisted living communities deliver personal care, light housekeeping, and laundry. They also offer communal dining halls that serve three meals a day, including special meals for those with medical conditions such as diabetes. In addition, both types of residential alternatives are equipped with safety systems, such as emergency pull cords.

Assisted living communities provide 24-hour care, usually from nurses and other certified caregivers. They also have dining, housekeeping, maintenance, and other ancillary staff available throughout the day.

When Is It Time for Assisted Living?

An assisted living community is a good choice for a senior who needs additional support with the activities of daily living (ADLs). These may include dressing, showering, grooming, and toileting. Assisted living communities also provide socialization opportunities and an event calendar with many activities that make it easy to get out and about.

It might be time to explore assisted living if you or your loved one:

  • Have fallen in the past six months.
  • Live with chronic pain or a complex medication condition.
  • Struggle with medication management.
  • Feel lonely, isolated, depressed, or anxious.
  • Need a helping hand when it comes to daily personal care or household upkeep.

Who Can Benefit From Assisted Living?

An assisted living community is a terrific match for someone who has some health problems or needs help with bathing and dressing. Many seniors who choose assisted living remain independent aside from a few daily tasks. In fact, some assisted living residents drive their own cars, cook some of their own meals, and come and go freely.

Thanks to personalized care plans, residents of assisted living communities experience enhanced independence and a newfound peace of mind. Residents all have unique needs and preferences, making communities diverse and vibrant.

How Much Do Assisted Living Communities Cost?

Assisted living communities vary in cost depending on location, amenities, and services. Typically, communities charge a monthly fee that covers nearly all services, including meal plans, activities, transportation, and a spacious apartment.

Assisted living communities generally cost more than independent senior apartments, but much less than nursing homes.

What Is A Nursing Home?

More commonly known as a skilled nursing facility, a nursing home provides the highest level of care possible outside of a hospital. In fact, many seniors move to a nursing home following a hospital stay, surgery, or procedure. Nursing homes deliver 24-hour care to seniors who have complex medical conditions and need hands-on assistance and monitoring.

Residents may be confined to bed, totally incontinent, or rely on tube feeding. A licensed physician supervises each patient’s care, a nurse is always on the premises, and other medical professionals — such as occupational, physical, or speech therapists — are also on hand. Many nursing homes have medical equipment that is normally found in hospitals, such as X-ray machines or electric beds. In addition, these facilities often offer short-term rehabilitation services for adults of any age who can then return home.

When Is It Time for a Nursing Home?

A transition from an assisted living community to a nursing home is a personal decision. A skilled nursing facility is designed to meet complex medical needs, whether those needs are simple pain management, more complex rehabilitation, or something in between. Residents in skilled nursing facilities typically need assistance with tasks that go beyond ADLs.

Who Can Benefit From a Nursing Home?

A nursing home can be the right choice for someone whose medical needs require full-time care and access to services that are more similar to a hospital than a home. Some families choose to transition to a nursing home after a serious infection, or when a senior is continually in and out of the hospital.

Because skilled nursing facilities offer extensive care, they can provide more stability to seniors who might otherwise spend extended periods of time in the hospital. Some nursing homes also deliver hospice services, providing palliative care to seniors who are nearing the end of their senior living journey.

However, if a senior’s needs are more minimal — such as assistance with ADLs like bathing, dressing, or toileting — or if a senior needs simple care — such as physical therapy and medication management — a nursing home may be too restrictive and needlessly add costs.

How Much Do Skilled Nursing Facilities Cost?

Skilled nursing facilities typically are more expensive than assisted living communities due to the type of care offered. However, it is important to keep in mind that nearly all nursing homes are certified to participate in Medicare or Medicaid financial assistance programs.

Many states cover some assisted living communities under Medicaid, but the amount of coverage and eligibility requirements vary widely, and many communities are not covered at all. Even when Medicaid covers an assisted living community, a person might have to meet certain medical criteria before coverage kicks in.

What Is the Difference Between Assisted Living and a Nursing Home?

When it comes down to it, assisted living communities are designed to be more similar to home, whereas a skilled nursing facility is designed to be a more clinical environment. Both of these senior living solutions are necessary within the senior living continuum, and you might find that you or your loved one needs a short-term stay at a nursing home to recover from hospitalization before returning back to assisted living.

Assisted Living vs. Nursing Home Costs

Overall, one of the biggest differences between nursing homes and assisted living communities is cost. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2016, the average cost for a private room in a nursing home was $7,698 per month, more than twice the cost of a one-bedroom assisted living apartment, which averaged $3,628 per month.

Choose the Right Care for Your Loved One.

The care decisions you make will affect your loved one for the rest of their life. The right decision can potentially improve an entire family’s quality of life by reducing bickering and restoring a sense of balance.

The move to residential care is never a one-size-fits-all decision. Instead, it’s important to review your loved one’s needs, spend time touring each community, and ask many questions. When you find a community that feels welcoming and comfortable, act quickly, because many communities have long waiting lists.

Your loved one deserves a retirement of peace and support, no matter how their health shifts in the coming years. So take your time and make a decision that feels right for everyone.

In the meantime, learn more about assisted living by downloading our free resource, The Complete Guide to Assisted Living. Our experts compiled everything you need to know about this senior living option, including more details about care, cost, and benefits.

New call-to-action

Begin Your Senior Living Journey with Arbor

Begin Your Senior Living Journey with Arbor

Find a Community