What originally began as a less-expensive, residential alternative to traditional nursing homes, has now blossomed to more than 22,200 assisted living communities in the USA, according to the 2013 Overview of Long-Term Services in the United States. About 713,000 older adults live in residential care communities including assisted living, with more than half of assisted living residents aged 85 or older. Nearly 40 percent need help with at least three or more activities of daily living.
So what, exactly, is assisted living and what sets assisted living communities apart from traditional nursing homes or independent living communities?
Even though some people need a little help with bathing or dressing or the like, residents of assisted living communities are independent for the main; in fact, they are encouraged to be as independent as possible in an environment that maximizes their autonomy, dignity, privacy and safety. Unlike nursing homes, assisted living communities don’t provide intensive hands-on care for older adults with serious mental or physical ailments, although they do deliver some medical services, such as medication management. A licensed nurse determines the appropriate level of care for each resident by completing a comprehensive assessment of their abilities and needs, reviewing assessments regularly or when their condition changes. Staff nurses and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are available 24 hours a day to help out with scheduled needs as well as unexpected issues that crop up.
Some assisted living communities specialize in memory care, solely catering to people with dementia or other cognitive problems; in other cases, a regular assisted living community maintains a memory care unit in a separate wing. Memory care employees are specifically trained to care for persons with impaired cognition or dementia.
Variety of Settings
There is no one type of assisted living community -- the design, ambience and atmosphere of each community varies. These can range from small but convenient high-rise apartments in large metropolitan centers, to campus-style communities designed to convey the closeness and charm of small-town living. When it comes to accessibility, residences have doorways, hallways, and rooms that can accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, as well as handrails to aid in walking and elevators for those who can’t climb stairs.
Assisted living communities typically have between 25 and 120 apartments, varying in size from a single room to multiple bedrooms with a kitchen. Some communities offer shared accommodation and most units are unfurnished, allowing each resident to add a personal, homelike touch with the furniture they have used and loved throughout their lives.
Each unit is supplied with emergency pull cords or other types of safety systems. In some communities, residents also wear a pendant necklace that can alert a nursing station if there is an emergency. In addition, some units may allow for a non-locking entry door if it’s felt that a resident's safety would otherwise be jeopardized.
Communities Designed for Social Interaction
The opportunity to interact with other residents and develop fellowship is a key benefit of assisted living. Residences are designed with plenty of common areas, such as communal dining rooms, living rooms or computer centers, making it easy for residents to socialize. In addition, a whole host of entertainment and recreational opportunities are provided, such as on-site movies and musical shows, singalongs, arts and crafts classes, gardening clubs and planned day trips. Assisted living communities also offer exercise and wellness programs, including chair exercise programs and yoga classes, as well as fitness centers and walking paths.
As far as amenities are concerned, residents are served three meals a day plus snacks and special diets are accommodated. As well, some assisted living communities offer housekeeping and laundry services, and transportation is usually provided for scheduled outings and medical appointments.
Because there are no national standards -- assisted living communities are regulated at the state level -- different communities can provide different levels of care, depending on their licensing. According to the National Caregivers Library, “approximately two out of every five states have assisted living licensure regulations in place, one out of every five states has drafted or revised assisted living regulations, and 20 percent of states have begun studying assisted living.”
Home Comforts, Professional Care
Assisted living is designed to be a long-term home with all of its creature comforts, while also adding the on-hand care and assistance that aging often requires. It provides the maximum level of independence to seniors who require more help than what is provided by independent living, but less specialized care than what can be found at a skilled nursing facility or dedicated memory care community. Assisted living is a good choice for a senior citizen who does not require round-the-clock nursing care but does need some help with cooking, cleaning, or other activities of daily living.
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