This blog was published on December 20,2017 and updated on January 9, 2020.

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 your own 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.

Daily Amenities and Services

Assisted living communities are structured around providing seniors with support when and where they need it. Most seniors live in an apartment in close proximity to other community members. There is often help available 24/7 with the simple push of a button, and seniors can get help with basic life tasks, including:

  • Shopping and meal preparation
  • Cleaning
  • Remembering medications
  • Bathing and grooming
  • Making and keeping doctor’s appointments

Assisted living exists on a continuum. Some communities offer more extensive care than others. Many provide a range of services that change with a senior’s needs and health.

Independent living does not provide medical care or nursing support. The focus is instead on convenience and an active life. For instance, a senior might be able to order meals or eat at an on-campus cafe, but will be unlikely to get help making nutritional meals or remembering medication. There are some important exceptions to this rule. Many independent living communities, including Arbor communities, contract with in-home care companies to help seniors get the support they need while remaining as independent as possible.

Which type of senior living option is right for you? Take our quiz to find out!

Medical and Supportive Care

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.

Access to and Contact with Staff

In an independent living community, seniors might not have regular contact with the staff, unless they sign up for a meal or other service. In these communities, a senior’s involvement with the staff is largely dependent on the senior’s preferences. Someone who eats every meal in the community center might frequently see the staff, but someone who prefers a quieter existence might forget the community even has staff.

In assisted living, staff are there to monitor and check in on residents. Although they don’t diagnose medical conditions, they will stay in touch with seniors to ensure they’re thriving. If a senior appears to need more help, staff may drop by more frequently or talk to the senior’s family. One of the primary benefits of assisted living is that it offers families peace of mind that someone is looking out for their loved one.


Independent senior living communities are about lifestyle preference — not a form of senior care. This means that they’re typically more affordable, but unlikely to be covered by Medicare, Medicaid or insurance. Assisted living, by contrast, greatly expands upon the level of care a senior can expect at home. Because of these more extensive services, assisted living tends to be more costly than independent living. Assisted living is also more likely to be covered by long-term-care insurance, employee benefits programs and Medicaid. You may need a doctor’s prescription or other medical orders to get coverage, so check the details of your insurance or long-term care plan. 

No matter which option you choose, our senior living cost calculator can help you estimate how much you’ll pay, and whether moving to senior living might save you some money.

Family Involvement

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 a senior is 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 further 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 seniors having unmet needs. They may find that this improves their relationship with the senior and reduces their level of stress.

Continuum of Care

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 degenerative health conditions like Parkinson’s, dementia or cancer. They may eventually need more extensive care, and 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 his or her needs change.

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. And so it’s less common for independent living providers to offer an extensive continuum of care.

Which Is Right for Me?

You don’t have to be in perfect health to choose independent living. Likewise, you don’t need to be severely ill to decide that assisted living is the better option. And so some seniors struggle with the right choice, especially when it feels like a close call. Some questions to ask yourself include:

    • Would my health be at risk if I had to spend a few days alone in my home? If the answer is yes, then you may need assisted living.
    • Am I lonely, but otherwise healthy? If yes, then the increased sense of community of independent living could be the best option.
    • Am I relying more on my children or spouse to run errands or address regular needs? If so, then assisted living could bridge this gap in your needs.
    • Is my current caregiving arrangement working for all involved? Many elders opt to rely on loved ones, but caregiving can be exhausting work that tips the balance of power in a relationship. Do your caregivers seem stressed, annoyed or overwhelmed? Has there been an increase in family conflict? If so, then assisted living could help.
    • Do I have a serious medical condition? Assisted living can help if you have a serious diagnosis, particularly if that diagnosis is likely to get worse.
    • Has my doctor expressed concern about my intention to continue to live alone? If so, then consider assisted living.
    • How do I feel alone in my home? If you are anxious, then this might mean you need assisted living. If you feel confident in your ability to care for yourself, but bored or lonely, then independent living could be the superior option.
    • Have I let any daily activities, such as cooking, cleaning or bathing, fall by the wayside? Do I worry that these basic activities could be dangerous, due to a fall or other concern? If so, then assisted living can offer some help and peace of mind.
    • Do I have a chronic or progressive medical condition? Seniors diagnosed with conditions that are likely to get worse over time, such as dementia or terminal cancer, may gain immense peace of mind from moving to an independent living community that is connected to an assisted living community.
    • Is paying for in-home care a significant financial burden? Many seniors opt to lean on the support of in-home caregivers. As their needs change and become more intense, however, this can present a significant financial challenge. Moreover, in-home aides can’t provide the sort of entertainment and enrichment that seniors get in assisted living communities.

Age and health problems shouldn’t have to mean a decline in quality of life. No matter what your perfect retirement looks like or what barriers to achieving it you face, Arbor can help. We offer a wide range of senior living options tailored to meet the evolving and diverse needs of seniors from all walks of life. Give us a call or stop by and enjoy one of our many special events. We can’t wait to help you write the next chapter of your life.

This post was updated in January 2020.

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