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What is Independent Living?

What is Independent Living?
Sep 07, 2023
Written by:
Medical Reviewer:
Reviewed by: BSPharm, MPH, Senior Director, NCOA Center for Healthy Aging
Fact Checked

Key Takeaways

  • Independent living communities are a great option for older adults who are in generally good health but don’t want the burden of home ownership.
  • Personal care services, such as help with bathing or dressing, are not offered by independent living facilities, but residents can receive these services through third-party providers, such as home health aides.
  • Independent living communities typically offer a full calendar of social activities for residents, from community outings to on-site classes, concerts, and games.
  • The cost of independent living will vary based on your geographical location and the size of your living quarters. Typically, rent in an independent living community includes three meals per day, light housekeeping, social activities, and some transportation services.

North Carolina resident Gail W. moved her 84-year-old mother to a Chapel Hill independent living facility in 2021. Gail hired additional care services to help her mother remain independent in the facility, and is currently researching assisted living options for the future. Still, at the time of our interview, Gail’s mother was thriving in independent living. She enjoyed “the cheerful vibe of the community” and seeing her friends at meals daily.

Finding the right living situation for yourself or an older adult you care for requires a lot of research and discussion. How do you balance the independence you want with the level of care you need? And how do you find a community where you can thrive?

In this comprehensive guide, our Local Care Reviews Team defines independent living and lets you know what to expect regarding cost, amenities, and finding the right independent living facility.

Why you can trust our expert review

Our Local Care Reviews Team works hard to provide clear, transparent information to older adults seeking senior living and home care. To provide you with the best possible information, we have spent more than 250 hours:

  • Consulting with our advisory board, which consists of a certified life care manager, a board-certified geropyschologist ⓘA geropyschologist is a professional psychologist who specializes in the needs and well-being of older adults., and a geriatric nurse practitioner
  • Surveying thousands of older adults and their caregivers about their search for senior living communities
  • Conducting focus groups with caregivers who are helping older adults find assisted living
  • Mystery shopping dozens of brands and communities associated with long-term care for older adults
  • Analyzing and synthesizing nationwide data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), and the National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL)
  • Analyzing and synthesizing state-specific data from government health regulatory agencies

What is independent living?

For older adults in relatively good health, independent living offers a maintenance-free lifestyle in a supportive community. Residents live in studios or apartments with one to three bedrooms and enjoy meals with peers in a restaurant-style dining room. Most independent living communities provide light housekeeping, and residents can enjoy the social activities offered daily.

Independent living meaning and perceptions

Independent living can mean a variety of things, including aging in place, moving to a seniors-only apartment building, or becoming a member of an independent living community. Windy Read, Lead Manager at Azalea Estates, an independent living facility in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, discussed the many levels of independence. “Just because you have a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair doesn’t mean you’re not independent,” she said. “It just means you might need a little extra help.”

Services available through independent living facilities

Typically, an independent living facility provides light housekeeping, three meals per day, and a full activities calendar, but personal care and medical services are not provided. Residents needing additional help, such as assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) ⓘActivities of daily living, also called ADLs, are activities related to necessary personal care. These include bathing, dressing, toileting, eating, walking, and transferring in and out of a bed or chair., can contract with third-party service providers, such as home health aides, to provide the care they need to continue living independently. Many independent living communities contract with physical and occupational therapists to offer on-site services.

Types of independent living communities

Independent living communities vary in size, type of living quarters, and type of services provided to residents. Knowing the differences can help you decide which type of independent living is right for you.

Independent living facility

An independent living facility is usually a single building—or a few buildings on a single campus—made up of studios, condos, or apartments with 1–3 bedrooms. Residents pay a single, all-inclusive monthly fee, usually including three meals per day, light housekeeping, some transportation services, and a full activities calendar. Typically, a manager remains on-site 24/7 to handle emergencies.

Retirement community

Similar to independent living communities, retirement communities are for adults 55 and older. Rather than a single building, a retirement community may be a complex of single-family units, condos, and apartment buildings, often organized around a communal gathering space, like a clubhouse. Many retirement communities have a homeowner’s association (HOA) coordinating social activities and services like lawn care and building maintenance.

Subsidized senior housing

Low-income older adults can find subsidized senior apartments through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These apartments typically do not offer services like housekeeping and personal care services, but do provide residents a sense of community. HUD housing often offers shared gathering spaces and community programs, as well as various social services advertised to residents.

Seniors living in HUD housing pay 30% of their adjusted gross income. [1] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s Public Housing Program. Found on the internet at https://www.hud.gov/topics/rental_assistance/phprog So, if you make $1,500 per month, your monthly rent responsibility would be $450. Unfortunately, HUD housing for seniors often has a long waiting list. Use HUD’s affordable rents tool to find subsidized senior housing near you. [2] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Information for Senior Citizens. Found on the internet at https://www.hud.gov/topics/information_for_senior_citizens Learn more about the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program and Section 202 Supportive Housing for Older Adults.

Senior apartments

Apartments marketed toward older adults, sometimes called “55 and better” communities, are for active people desiring a low-maintenance lifestyle. These communities typically include amenities such as fitness centers, pickleball courts, and communal gathering spaces. Senior apartments may offer a welcome sense of sociability, but there are no services provided to residents beyond the building’s amenities.

Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC)

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), also called Life Care Communities (LCCs), offer residents many levels of care—from independent to assisted living to skilled nursing care—at one location. Typically, different buildings or different floors of a building provide distinct levels of care. As needs change, residents can move from one level of care to another. CCRC entrance fees range from $50,000 to $450,000, limiting entry for many low-and-middle-income older adults. [3] Internal Revenue Service. Elderly Housing. Found on the internet at https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/eotopicg04.pdf

Table 1 Services provided by type of independent living community

Independent living facilityRetirement communitySubsidized senior housingSenior apartmentsContinuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC)
Building and lawn maintenance
Light housekeeping
Onsite laundry facilities
Laundry services
Communal meals
24/7 staff to handle emergencies
Planned community activities
All-inclusive rent
Next level of care available

Independent living vs. other types of senior living

For adults needing help with ADLs or requiring skilled nursing, independent living may not provide the care they need. Understanding the differences between independent living and other types of older adult communities is critical before you make a decision about where to live as you age.

Additionally, it’s important to recognize your own needs to find the setting that is right for you. Consider having a comprehensive geriatric care assessment ⓘA geriatric care assessment is a multi-disciplinary exercise that tests mental, physical, emotional, and psychological health and assesses functionality, living conditions, socio-economic environment, social circles, family involvement, and everything else that goes into determining quality of life. completed. Some physicians, geriatric care managers, and local agencies on aging can perform these assessments. If you have long-term care insurance, this assessment is likely a requirement before you can start using the insurance benefits.

Independent living vs. assisted living

The key difference between assisted living and independent living is the level of care provided. In assisted living, residents enjoy some of the same amenities as independent living, including communal meals and social activities. But assisted living facilities, which are usually staffed by certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and licensed professional nurses (LPNs), also provide personal care services, such as medication management and help with ADLs. For example, some residents may need help showering or transferring to and from bed.

Independent living vs. memory care

Memory care is specialized residential care for people living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. A memory care facility offers the same services found in an assisted living facility, with an added focus on dementia-specific care. Ideally, memory care staff will be trained to care for people with dementia, although this is not guaranteed. Memory care units, which are locked from the inside to prevent residents from wandering, may be located in either an assisted living or nursing care facility.

Independent living vs. a nursing home

In the spectrum of residential options for older adults, nursing homes offer the highest level of care. Staffed by both CNAs and registered nurses (RNs), nursing homes provide skilled nursing services, such as managing insulin pumps or feeding tubes. Nursing homes can also provide care for those living with advanced Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Why choose an independent living facility?

An independent living facility can be a great option for older adults seeking to maintain their independence while staying socially connected. While independent living facilities will vary depending on where you live, they share some common features.

Here are 10 benefits of an independent living facility:

1. Maintenance-free living

Homeownership comes with many responsibilities, including tasks considered unsafe for some older adults, such as cleaning out gutters and yard maintenance. Independent living facilities offer older adults freedom from home upkeep. For some, the costs of maintaining their homes, especially older homes, and paying property taxes and utilities, are more than the costs of moving to an independent living community.

2. Dining services

Daily meal preparation can become challenging or tiresome for some older adults, especially if they live alone. Independent living facilities offer three balanced meals per day in a communal setting, offering residents time to socialize and enjoy nutritious meals.

3. Strong sense of community

“We consider residents our family,” said Read of the community at Azalea Estates. Though all independent living facilities will have a different social culture, communal dining, and on-site social activities help create a strong sense of community among residents and staff.

4. Recreation and social activities

According to the National Academies for Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, social isolation can increase the risk of dementia and even premature death. [4] National Academies for Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. 2020. Found on the internet at https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25663/social-isolation-and-loneliness-in-older-adults-opportunities-for-the Independent living facilities offer a variety of social activities for residents, including gardening, walking groups, book clubs, and trips to local concerts and museums.

5. Safety and comfort

Independent living facilities are designed with older adults in mind. Many have wide hallways, well-lit common areas, and accessible entrances. In most cases, apartments have an emergency pull cord and a building manager present 24/7 to handle emergencies.

6. Focus on health and wellness

Many independent living communities offer activities promoting the overall health of residents, including yoga, daily walking groups, and health education classes. Often, independent living facilities contract with physical and occupational therapists to provide on-site services.

7. Complimentary transportation

For older adults who no longer drive, the loss of independence can be frustrating. Independent living facilities may offer complimentary, or fee-based transportation to doctor’s appointments, local shopping, and pre-planned social events.

8. Pet-friendly community

Older adults considering a move to independent living may not want to leave beloved pets behind. Many independent living facilities are pet friendly, allowing older adults the companionship of a cat or dog. Depending on the facility, there may be restrictions on the size and type of pets allowed.

9. All-inclusive rate

One monthly fee makes it easier for older adults on a fixed income to stick to a budget. While the price of an independent living facility may seem high, it’s important to remember the monthly fee typically includes rent and additional services, like light housekeeping, three meals per day, complimentary transportation, social activities, and access to all facility amenities, which may include fitness rooms, libraries, chapels, and even movie theaters. Every community will have its own list of services and amenities included.

10. Balanced lifestyle

Independent living facilities are designed to offer older adults a balance of independence and security. Also, because activities are both plentiful and optional, residents can balance social engagement with their privacy needs.

five benefits of independent living facilities, which are 24/7 emergency response, sense of community, complimentary transportation, communal meals, and one monthly fee

Independent living facilities offer a number of benefits for older adults and their caregivers.

Is independent living the right choice for you?

You don’t have to determine your ideal senior living option alone. Talk to friends, family, and trusted health care professionals about your choices in moving from home to independent living. In these discussions, consider your ability to care for your home, your social needs, and your health status.

When determining if independent living is right for you, consider the following:

Current home maintenance capability

All homes require maintenance, no matter their age or size. Homeowners must have the ability to complete tasks like mowing the lawn, cleaning gutters, and changing the batteries in smoke alarms. If you or someone you care for is finding it challenging to keep up with home maintenance tasks, even with the help of others, it might be time for a move to independent living. It’s always a good idea to consider home modifications to help reduce the risk of falling and help you age in place.

Social connectivity

Many older adults feel isolated in their homes, especially if they are single and don’t live near friends or family. Consider how often you see those you care about. Could your quality of life be improved by more social interaction? If the answer is yes, independent living could be a solution.

Mobility

If you live in a two-story home or another setting where you find it challenging to get around, an independent living facility could increase your mobility. These facilities are equipped with safety and accessibility features like grab bars, elevators, and wide hallways and doorways for accommodating rollators and wheelchairs.

Overall health

Independent living facilities do not offer any form of personal care or medical services. If you or someone you care for has a chronic disease requiring skilled nursing care or needs help with ADLs, assisted living or nursing care may be a better option. Additionally, independent living facilities are not secured from the inside, so they’re not safe for individuals living with dementia who may wander outside the facility.

Gail’s experience taught her someone’s health status can change quickly, and independent living might not be a permanent living situation. “Even if your elder family member doesn’t need daily assistance now, start researching local assisted living models as soon as they move into an independent living community, so you don’t get blindsided if there’s a fall or a sharp increase in the need for ADL assistance,” she advised. “As happy as my mother is in her current independent living community, my family and I now see we will need to move her to assisted living eventually, and wish we had started our research earlier.”

How to choose the right independent living community

Many senior living communities are operated by large national companies. Still, communities can vary considerably from facility to facility when it comes to amenities and community culture. Before making a decision, tour facilities and talk to both residents and staff.

Independent living amenities and quality of life

The amenities provided by independent living facilities, such as fitness rooms and communal dining, are intended to improve older adults’ quality of life. Jennifer Avila, executive director of Chicago-based Custom Home Care, has more than 20 years of experience in senior housing and health care. Through her experience, she found “amenities such as restaurant-style dining, housekeeping, and transportation services are important features, but most seniors are looking for a lifestyle. They want an engaged social life and to be part of an active community.”

When moving her mother to an independent living facility in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Gail looked for a community with “set times for sit-down meals which all residents are encouraged to attend daily.” This model, in contrast to the open time range meals at her mother’s previous independent living community, offered three built-in social activities per day, which made it easier for her mother to quickly make friends and adapt to her new community.

Staff qualifications and availability

Independent living facilities are not regulated on a state or federal level, so there are no standardized training requirements for staff at these facilities. Still, Avila shared, “Independent living communities must follow state and federal training requirements according to the licensed services provided, including workplace safety. Quality companies not only train employees on job-specific duties, but also on things like customer service, the aging process, dementia, and company culture.” Ask about specific staff qualifications at the facilities you tour.

In many, but not all, independent living communities, a manager lives on-site, meaning someone is available for emergencies 24/7. “We’re not medical professionals,” Read said of the staff at Azalea Estates, “but we consider residents part of our family. If they pull their [medical alert] cord or pendant, we’re there to help.”

Independent living activities for a balanced lifestyle

When you tour independent living communities, ask to talk to the activities director or to see an activities calendar, which is often posted in common areas. Ideally, a community organizes activities to create a balanced lifestyle for older adults, incorporating social events, movement, and intellectual stimulation. According to Gail, her mother “loves the Sunday afternoon concerts by visiting musicians, the super competitive bingo games each Monday afternoon, and the bistro kitchen lounge where there’s an ‘all day’ soft ice cream machine.”

Independent living community size, location, and accessibility

The size, location, and physical layout of an independent living community are important factors in deciding where to live. For many older adults, living close to family members is important. For older adults using a cane or a walker, a huge building with multiple floors might seem overwhelming. In this case, ask about apartments near the common areas where you’ll spend much of your time.

Because they’re designed for older adults, all independent living facilities should feature well-lit common areas, wide hallways, and bathrooms with grab bars and walk-in showers.

Financial considerations: Understanding the cost of independent living

Overview of independent living costs

Our research showed all-inclusive rents in independent living facilities started at $1,709–$4,595 per month. Brookdale, the largest senior living operator in the U.S., reported an even wider range of costs for independent living, with rents averaging $870–$7,545 per month. [5] Brookdale Senior Living. Independent Living Costs. Found on the internet at https://www.brookdale.com/en/our-services/independent-living/independent-living-costs.html Independent living costs vary widely depending on the location and amenities provided within the facility.

In most cases, independent living facilities charge a monthly, all-inclusive fee. You may also be required to pay an entrance fee or security deposit, which may or may not be refundable.

Rent in an all-inclusive independent living community usually includes:

  • A private or shared apartment
  • Light housekeeping, typically once or twice per week
  • Three meals per day, as well as snacks in between meals
  • Daily on-site activities, and occasional off-site activities
  • Complimentary transportation to and from doctor’s appointments, local shopping, and some social activities
  • On-premise amenities, such as fitness rooms, movie theaters, beauty salons, and laundry facilities

Factors affecting the cost of independent living

Many factors influence the cost of independent living, including the size of your living quarters and the type of amenities provided. Studios are typically the most affordable option, while apartments with 1-3 bedrooms will cost more. Independent living communities with upscale amenities, such as swimming pools or movie theaters, may cost more than facilities with more modest amenities.

The Administration for Community Living reported that people 65 and older have an almost 70% chance of needing long-term care services in their remaining years. [6] Administration for Community Living. How Much Care Will You Need? Found on the internet at https://acl.gov/ltc/basic-needs/how-much-care-will-you-need If you or someone you care for needs additional care, such as assistance with ADLs, you may need to hire a home health aide to provide care within the independent living setting. While this is a common practice for residents in many independent living communities, Gail revealed, “the costs for layering in outside hourly support to meet a resident’s evolving self-care needs can climb rapidly.”

Key questions to ask about the cost of independent living

All-inclusive rents can make it easier for older adults living on a fixed income to stick to a budget. But it’s important to know all the details of your independent living contract.

If you or someone you care for is researching independent living facilities near you, be sure to ask these questions about the cost of independent living:

  • What services and amenities are included in my rent? Additionally, what is not included in the monthly fees?
  • Will I be subject to annual rent increases? If so, by what percentage will my rent increase each year?
  • Do I need to tip the housekeeping or kitchen staff at the facility?
  • Are there additional fees for participating in on-site or off-site activities?
  • Is there an entrance fee? If so, how much is it? Is this fee refundable?
  • Are pets permitted? If so, is there a pet deposit?

Exploring payment options and insurance coverage for independent living

Medicare, Medicaid, and long-term care insurance will not pay for any form of independent living, but Medicare may cover the cost of medical or therapeutic services a resident receives while residing in an independent living community the same way it would if living at home. It may also cover the cost of durable medical equipment (DME) used in an independent living setting, such as a bedside commode or shower stool.

Because insurance will not pay for independent living, most residents cover the cost with personal savings, including Social Security benefits, pension payments, stocks, 401(k) and IRA accounts, or proceeds from the sale of a home or another property.

Making the transition to independent living

Tips and support for a smooth transition

Even when you’re confident independent living is the right choice for you or someone you care for, a move of any kind can be overwhelming.

Here are a few tips to help you transition smoothly to independent living:

  • Give yourself time to downsize. Often, older adults transitioning to independent living are leaving behind a larger home. To make sure your belongings are properly packed, stored, or donated, start the downsizing process early. If possible, enlist family members or professional movers to help.
  • Know the floor plan of your new space. If you’re moving into a smaller space than you’re used to, knowing the new floor plan and its measurements will help you to decide which furniture to keep and whether to buy new items, such as a smaller dining table.
  • Familiarize yourself with the building’s staff and layout. Take some time before move-in day to explore the new facility. Find out where the dining room and laundry facilities are in relation to your new room. Get to know the names of staff members.
  • Set up transportation in advance. If you or someone you care for is no longer driving, learn about the independent living facility’s transportation options as soon as possible. For example, some facilities provide transportation to doctor’s appointments only on certain days of the week, reserving other days for shopping or social outings. Some may charge a fee for transportation to destinations farther than 5-10 miles from the independent living facility.
  • Get involved. The sooner you meet fellow residents, the more comfortable your new environment becomes. Sign up for activities and attend communal meals. Remember, many people join independent living communities for social benefits.
  • Review the contract carefully: Seek help from family members and friends to fully understand the fine print of the contract before signing, e.g., under what circumstances might you be evicted, how long family members can stay overnight, what you can’t have in your room, e.g., certain fire hazards, appliances, etc.
  • Know your rights: Included in the contract should be specifications related to your rights as a resident of the community.

Useful resources for older adults in independent living

To remain active and independent in your new home, use the resources available. Here are some helpful resources:

  • Prevent falls. Have a conversation with your loved ones about the importance of fall prevention. This guide to preventing falls can help.
  • Connect with your local area agency on aging. Your local area agency on aging can help you secure additional transportation services, find caregivers, and connect you with communities of interest.
  • Get the benefits you’re eligible for. Be sure you’re receiving all the benefits programs you’re eligible for by using BenefitsCheckUp.

Bottom line

Independent living communities are ideal for older adults in relatively good health looking for social engagement who no longer want to maintain a home.

The top benefits of independent living communities include built-in social activities, communal meals, and complimentary transportation to doctor’s appointments, shopping, and recreational activities. Older adults living on a fixed income may also find it helpful to pay a single monthly bill for most of their living expenses.

While the staff of independent living facilities receive facility-specific training, there are no state or federal training requirements for employees of independent living communities. No medical or personal care services are provided in independent living communities, although residents needing additional help can contract with third-party services to employ home health aides.

The cost of independent living facilities will vary widely based on where you live and the amenities provided. Budget is a key consideration in determining whether independent living is right for you, as are your current health status and desire for social connection.

If you think independent living is right for you, find facilities near friends and family and take tours. To determine the right fit, ask questions about things important to you, such as the types of social activities or the quality of meals. The right independent living community should feel like home.

Frequently asked questions

Have questions about this article? Email us at reviewsteam@ncoa.org.

Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s Public Housing Program. Found on the internet at https://www.hud.gov/topics/rental_assistance/phprog
  2. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Information for Senior Citizens. Found on the internet at https://www.hud.gov/topics/information_for_senior_citizens
  3. Internal Revenue Service. Elderly Housing. Found on the internet at https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/eotopicg04.pdf
  4. National Academies for Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. 2020. Found on the internet at https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25663/social-isolation-and-loneliness-in-older-adults-opportunities-for-the
  5. Brookdale Senior Living. Independent Living Costs. Found on the internet at https://www.brookdale.com/en/our-services/independent-living/independent-living-costs.html
  6. Administration for Community Living. How Much Care Will You Need? Found on the internet at https://acl.gov/ltc/basic-needs/how-much-care-will-you-need
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