Independent living refers to a wide range of residential options that afford older adults the opportunity to live on their own while taking advantage of various amenities and community offerings. Independent living residential options are usually designed and arranged specifically for older adults, and the type of housing they provide—from apartments to townhomes to single family homes— can vary. Read on to learn exactly what independent living is and what to consider when helping a loved one choose the best community for them. Fortunately, there’s a range of options to fit various health requirements, personal preferences and budgets.
What Are Independent Living Facilities?
Independent living communities are for adults, generally ages 55 and older, who don’t need assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) but are looking for a living environment that offers additional support, onsite amenities and socializing opportunities and activities . ADLs, which include tasks relating to mobility, personal hygiene, eating and dressing, often serve as benchmarks for the level of care someone may need as they age. As people require more assistance with ADLs, they become less eligible for independent living environments and instead are better supported by communities that provide higher levels of care, such as assisted living and skilled nursing facilities.
Types of Independent Living Communities
Options for independent living include retirement communities and senior housing communities.
Retirement communities are for adults ages 55 and older who are looking for their own home but want additional amenities, such as a community pool and clubhouse and planned social activities. Residents of these communities often pay a monthly fee for maintenance (such as landscaping) and utilities (such as cable and internet access). There are options to both buy and lease homes and apartments in retirement communities, with rent often including basic utilities. If you buy a home, additional monthly fees can reach as high as $1,500 for services like maintenance and administrative fees for the community.
Continuing Care Senior Housing Communities
Senior housing communities, often referred to as continuing care senior housing communities (CCSHC), offer a wide array of services, such as in-home care, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing home care, in addition to independent living, says Joseph G, Ouslander, M.D., professor of geriatric medicine and associate dean of geriatrics at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida.
These housing communities can provide prompt access to medical care if needed. What’s more, if a resident needs to transition from an independent living setup to one that includes in-home care or assisted living, remaining in a CCHSC is often an option. They can help you move to different levels of care while still living in the same community, keeping your surroundings and social life familiar as your needs change.
Benefits of Independent Living Communities
While many adults prefer to age in place in the homes where they raised their families, there are myriad benefits to moving to independent living communities, which can enhance lives and offer communal support that extends beyond doctors and family members, says Allison Ostroff, M.D., a primary care physician specializing in geriatric care at Nuvance Health in Brookfield, Connecticut.
“There are assumptions [by patients] that [independent living] is an assisted living facility or a memory care facility and that they don’t need the services,” explains Dr. Ostroff. “I then explain to people what [independent living] does mean and how it can be extremely beneficial for socialization, ease of meals [and] removing tasks—such as cleaning—but otherwise being completely independent in all facets of life.”
What to Consider When Looking for the Best Independent Living Community
There are several factors to consider when looking for an independent living community that suits you or your loved one. For some, access to care, such as onsite nurses and transitional care opportunities, are important while others prefer the amenities of a retirement community. The following details can help you determine which type of independent living is appropriate for you and/or your loved one.
Care and Community Support Offerings
If care offerings are important to you, Dr. Ouslander recommends looking for readily available and reliable in-home medical assistance and an onsite clinic staffed by both physicians and nurse practitioners that provides a full spectrum of treatment, including (but not limited to) physical therapy, podiatry, optometry, audiology and nutrition counseling services.
“I believe most people should ensure their facility has a nurse onsite or, at minimum, caregivers overnight, as even an independent person can have an accident or ailment, such as a fall with injury, stroke or heart attack, and they will need help if [they are] alone,” explains Dr. Ostroff. “Alternatively or in addition, a call button works for this purpose as well.”
For people who can’t or prefer not to drive, transportation options are another detail to consider, says Dr. Ostroff. For example, an onsite driver or transportation service could take residents to doctor appointments, church services, shopping and more.
Desired amenities are unique to each individual. Retirement communities often offer a community center, pool, golf course and tennis court. Meanwhile, CCSHCs usually offer more amenities due to their ability to provide multiple levels of care. They typically have a dining hall providing meals and snacks, as well as a fitness center, and some may have onsite salons for hair appointments and assistance with hygiene and hair washing, says Dr. Ouslander.
Although independent living communities may not have specific qualifications for general staff, many require employees to complete training in emergency preparedness, such as in the event of a fire or natural disaster, as well as infection control. If you choose a community with nurses and medical staff or professional services like transportation or personal training, you can inquire about certifications for specific staff members. It’s preferred to have staff trained in basic lifesaving skills, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
Always make sure to check the facility’s accreditation status. Licensing requirements and accreditation for facilities that provide continuing care vary by state, so research your state’s requirements to better determine the quality of a community you’re considering.
If you’re hoping to benefit from an active community setting and socialize with others, some independent living facilities offer social group activities, including card games, mahjong and organized entertainment, says Dr. Ouslander. Certain communities may also feature physical wellness activities like group fitness classes. Both retirement communities and CCSHCs usually present residents with the opportunity to socialize, so be sure to inquire about what social activities various facilities provide.
Proximity to Family and Essentials
Independent living options exist in urban, suburban and rural settings, says Dr. Ostroff, so taking into account your activities outside of the home may help you zoom in on locations to consider.
“If someone needs frequent care or frequently visits their doctor’s office, they may want to live close by,” says Dr. Ostroff. “Living near a child or other family member or friend is a nice feature as well.”
Meanwhile, some people may choose to move to an independent living community to achieve a sense of self-sufficiency and establish boundaries if they’ve been living with a family caregiver who provided them with transportation assistance, meals and more.
How Much Does Independent Living Cost?
Cost varies from community to community. In retirement communities, residents usually rent or purchase their home, as well as pay a monthly fee—similar to a homeowner’s association fee—that covers some level of maintenance and amenities.
Meanwhile, CCSHCs may require additional fees due to the presence of nursing staff, dining credits and more. There’s often a hefty “entrance fee” required to reserve a prospective resident’s space and access to medical care, with monthly fees after move-in reaching as high as $5,000. For those who can afford both the buy-in and monthly fees, continuing care can be a good choice, but it can also depend on whether the person is living alone or with someone else and the level of care they need, says Dr. Ouslander, as there may be fees for additional residents if you live with a spouse or partner.
Does Insurance Cover Independent Living?
Medicare doesn’t cover independent living costs, but if you choose a CCHSC, you may be able to use long-term care insurance to help cover the costs. (Premiums for long-term care insurance vary depending on the number of individuals insured by the plan and their age). If you’re moving to a retirement community and don’t require medical assistance or in-home care, however, insurance won’t cover the cost of purchasing a home in these neighborhoods.
When considering independent living options, making a list of the most important amenities and services for you and/or your loved one may help make the decision easier. Visit the facilities and make time to experience the amenities. Whether you go with a retirement community or CHSC, the facility should provide a healthy lifestyle with options for assistance and care according to your or your loved one’s needs. It should also be safe and offer enjoyable activities to provide peace of mind for both the older person and their family members.