Getting extra support for an aging loved one who might be struggling at home can be beneficial to both the senior and their family caregivers. However, options such as in-home care can become expensive quickly, and family members can find it challenging to manage tasks such as medication refills, grocery shopping, meal preparation, and hands-on care. Many family members initially balk at the idea of transitioning mom or dad to assisted living or nursing home care, but the truth is that residential care often ends up being less expensive in the long run, and it provides just the right environment to keep the senior healthy and happy.

Choosing to relocate to an assisted living or skilled nursing community can mean 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 assistance with day-to-day tasks. A skilled nursing or healthcare community, once referred to as a nursing home, 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 offer community living in a non-clinical environment. They can also offer some medical support services, help with diet and nutrition issues, and assist with incontinence. In most assisted living communities, a licensed nurse completes a comprehensive individualized assessment for each resident, and caregiving 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, some assisted living communities offer specialized memory care units for those living with cognitive decline. A memory care solution is ideal for someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia because 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 different levels of care and support based on what each resident needs, and many offer 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 skilled nursing or healthcare communities, assisted living communities deliver personal care, light housekeeping, and laundry. They also offer on-site restaurants 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.

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

Determining if It Is Time for Assisted Living

An assisted living community is a good choice for a senior who needs additional support with their activities of daily living (ADLs). These activities may include dressing, showering, grooming, and toileting. Assisted living communities also provide socialization opportunities through events, programs, and excursions that make it easy to connect with neighbors and explore the greater community.

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

  • Has fallen in the past six months.
  • Lives with chronic pain or a complex medication condition.
  • Struggles with medication management.
  • Feels lonely, isolated, depressed, or anxious.
  • Struggles with nutritional needs, such as grocery shopping, meal preparation, or healthy eating.
  • Needs 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 tasks such as 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 on their own schedules.

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.

Cost of Assisted Living Communities

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. 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 receive skilled care and may even be confined to bed, totally incontinent, or rely on tube feeding. In many cases, residents are there short-term to recover from a hospital stay or procedure. In other cases, residents are there long-term to receive comprehensive healthcare interventions 24 hours a day.

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.

Determining if It Is Time for a Nursing Home

A transition from home or an assisted living community to a nursing home is a personal decision but may occur after a senior is facing ongoing medical care needs. A skilled nursing facility is designed to meet particular 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 who, because of their medical needs, requires full-time care and access to services that are more similar to a hospital than a home. Some families choose to transition a senior loved one to a nursing home after a serious infection or when the 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 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 including 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.

Cost of Skilled Nursing Facilities

Skilled nursing facilities typically are more expensive than assisted living communities because of 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. Medicare covers most skilled nursing stays as long as there is a qualifying hospital stay beforehand at 100 percent for the first 20 days and then 80 percent for days 21-100.

What Is the Difference Between Assisted Living and Nursing Homes?

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 to assisted living.

Assisted Living vs. Skilled Nursing Costs

Overall, one of the biggest differences between nursing homes and assisted living communities is cost. According to a Genworth survey, in 2021, the median cost for a private room in a nursing home in the U.S. was about $9,000 per month — twice the median cost of an assisted living facility apartment, which came in at $4,500 per month.

Choosing 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.

Residential care is the right move for many, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is 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 to feel supported and at peace in their retirement, no matter how their health shifts in the coming years. So take your time and make a decision that feels right for everyone.

Learn more about your long-term care options by watching our webinar “Long-Term Care: Qualifications, Costs, and Coverage Options,” in which we dive into more detail about your options so you can make your best choice.

Frequently Asked Questions

What's the difference between assisted living and a nursing home?

A “nursing home,” which is better known as a skilled nursing facility (SNF) or a healthcare community, offers around-the-clock skilled nursing care. Skilled nursing care is care that can only be provided by licensed medical professionals such as nurses or therapists. This care can include wound management, IV management, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. Assisted living communities do not offer these skilled nursing services.

Is assisted living a nursing home?

No. The term “nursing home” is an antiquated term used to describe skilled nursing facilities, sometimes called SNFs or healthcare communities. A skilled nursing facility provides skilled nursing services. Assisted living communities offer around-the-clock caregiver support but do not offer skilled services like wound management or IV management.

What’s the difference between assisted living and skilled nursing?

The main difference between assisted living and skilled nursing is the type of care provided. Skilled nursing facilities, or SNFs, provide skilled nursing care, which are services that can only be performed by licensed medical professionals like nurses or therapists. Assisted living communities often have nurses on staff or provide outpatient therapy services at the community, but they do not provide around-the-clock skilled care.

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