The term senior living community carries different definitions for different people. Some families might see a senior living community as a place where their loved ones enjoy retirement. Others may see it as a place that provides the necessary services to seniors who might need extra assistance in their day-to-day lives. And still others think of senior living communities strictly as nursing homes.
In reality, senior living community is a blanket term covering any sort of formally organized community or residence where seniors live. That explanation may seem simple enough, but it creates more confusion, because not every senior living community is the same in terms of amenities, goals, and levels of care. Independent living isn’t assisted living, and assisted living isn’t necessarily memory care. Knowing the differences between senior living communities is important so that when you are considering an option for yourself or loved ones, you fully understand the terminology, which subsequently helps you ask better questions when evaluating a community.
The Evolution of Senior Living Terms
Not so long ago, senior living wasn’t even a term—seniors who moved out of their homes went to retirement communities or nursing homes. A retirement community was exactly what it sounded like: Residents, no longer working, transitioned into an apartment complex filled with other retirees. Nursing homes were facilities that provided more care, at varying levels, for seniors. Dementia sufferers might have ended up at a nursing home, but seniors who just weren’t as mobile might have moved to such a facility as well.
However, the idea of senior living came about in the 1990s. Retirees didn’t want to downsize into small apartments that felt like dorms but, rather, into spacious units, townhouses, or even their own homes—places where they had room to live, could entertain guests for dinner or cards, and even let their grandkids visit and stay overnight. And retirement became an ambiguous term as well, with many people of retirement age continuing to work into their 70s and being active and independent into their 80s and 90s.
The concept of nursing homes changed in the 1990s, too. Seniors who require more care often require a unique type of care, and the industry finally recognized that a dementia patient’s needs were much different from those of someone struggling with a hip replacement. Nursing home fell out of favor because it often was associated with invalid—which many patients simply aren’t. From this evolution, three preferred terms emerged to describe senior living communities: independent living, assisted living, and memory care.
Let’s start with independent living. Simply put, independent living is housing (apartments, condominiums, or even single-family homes) designed for seniors age 55 or older. The amenities of these communities cater to seniors who wish for more convenience and who do not require any skilled nursing care or assistance with activities of daily life (ADLs). Once called retirement communities, independent living is a more accurate description, because residents might be quite active and anything but retired.
Assisted living is defined as a senior community in which residents receive some sort of assistance based on individuals’ abilities and needs. The level of assistance varies depending on the resident. Some seniors might require help with housework and chores, such as laundry or housekeeping. Others may not be able to cook and prefer their meals served in a restaurant-style dining room. Still others may require help with ADLs or assistance from a skilled nurse in administering medicine or with other healthcare-related tasks. Assisted living recognizes that seniors may need some help with their everyday routines but are still very much active and independent—and can remain so with the care of qualified caregivers.
Memory care is advanced assisted living for residents dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory impairments. Staffers skilled in memory care offer whatever assistance is necessary while maintaining the resident’s dignity and engagement. Activity and socialization are important contributors to the overall health of seniors with dementia, and memory care communities incorporate these considerations into their philosophies—a far cry from the nursing homes of last century where patients’ well-being beyond basic needs were often ignored. The best senior living communities place an emphasis on living, which is a vital aspect of memory care.
Knowing these three terms is important when learning more about a senior living community. Many communities offer more than one of these options—for example, both assisted living and memory care—so determining your or your loved one’s exact needs is crucial to making informed decisions.