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How To Evaluate Independent Living Communities

Learn how to evaluate independent living communities with tips from Seniorly. Be ready to take and compare notes on the different communities you tour.

By Arthur Bretschneider · Updated Dec 5, 2022

If you're considering relocation to an independent living community as a possibility for yourself or your loved one, you have a lot of choices available. Independent living communities offer various types and sizes across the United States, so you can most likely find what you're looking for in any region.

Start with online research to narrow down your choices and determine the type of community you're looking for. You may have friends or family who want you to check out the independent living communities as well. As you compile your short list, you'll be able to pick out which communities you'd like to visit in person.

Here's a template for evaluating independent living communities as well as a comprehensive list of questions to take with you as you make your visits. Once you have the information you need, and once you've gotten a sense of the feel of each community you visit, you'll be better able to evaluate your choices and make your final decision.

Narrowing Down Your Independent Living Options

Independent living communities are all aimed at adults who are 55 and older and who don't need any assistance with the activities of daily living (dressing, bathing, grooming, and the like.) Within that broad category, though, you have a lot of options.

Maybe you want an active adult community. These communities, designed to appeal to baby boomers, often host recreational amenities such as golf courses, swimming pools, and clubhouses. They may include single-family homes, condos, and apartments available for both sale and rental. Some of them are strictly age-restricted.

Senior apartments are another option. These communities are designed to meet the physical needs of aging adults, with safety in mind and minimal use of stairs. They're typically age-restricted as well, and sometimes include common outdoor or indoor living space.

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) combine independent living with other options that provide a continuum of care for aging adults. Should you or your loved one need extra care and attention somewhere down the line, a CCRC is ready to meet those changing needs by moving you to skilled nursing or assisted living nearby within the community. Being able to move from one level of care to the next within the same community can be reassuring to you and your family.

A few other alternative independent living options also exist, including co-housing, in which residents have personal living space but share dining, cooking, laundry and living space communally. Another viable option is joining the village movement, popular among baby boomers who want to remain in their own homes as they age, but who join together with a large membership-based community to share home health care, home maintenance and other services. Some active adults even opt for life on a cruise ship as they retire.

Find an independent living community near you

Planning your tour of independent living communities

Once you've chosen the type of independent living community you're looking for and you've narrowed down the geographic areas you're interested in, you can make a short list of communities that you'd like to visit.

Going in person provides you with a feeling for a community that you can never get from perusing photos and reviews online. You may sense immediately that a given community feels like home or you may quickly realize that you need to keep searching. Making any move is a big step, so you want to get all the information you need up front to be able to choose wisely.

What to look for on your tour

You want to examine every facet of the independent living communities you visit. Check out all the available living accommodations to see if they suit you and make you feel at home. If there are dining facilities, have a meal. Check out the various social activities and community events and find out how many people in the community are actually involved with them.

The community may assign you a staff member to give you a tour. Take the opportunity to ask lots of questions. Also, find opportunities to chat with the current residents, as well. If there are any hidden pitfalls to an independent living community, the residents will be sure to let you know. You'll also get a sense of whether these are the people you'd like as your neighbors and future friends.

Finally, make sure you have a full understanding of the costs involved in each community you visit. Look over the community's rules and restrictions, and review any rental agreements you'd have to sign.

Questions to ask at independent living communities

When you're visiting an independent living community, you should ask any question you can think of. Ask your tour guide, if you have one, and sit down with a representative staff after your tour to ask more questions. Carrying a list of questions, either printed or on your phone, can make sure you don't miss a thing. The following will help you to evaluate independent living communities, along with a comprehensive list of questions to ask as you do your research and make your assessments.

What's the surrounding neighborhood like?

Is the neighborhood safe and comfortable? Is it a neighborhood you'd want to live in if you weren't in the independent living community? Ask how involved the residents are with the local neighborhood — Do they volunteer at local schools or participate in community activities? Check out the local shopping and entertainment options as well. You could very well find what looks like the perfect community on the inside, but if you love the hustle and bustle of city life, with all its dining and entertainment choices, you may be unhappy if that perfect spot is miles away from town.

What medical care is available?

Check out the top hospitals and medical centers in the area of your independent living community to find the care when you need it. In addition, ask whether the community can help you make arrangements if you or your loved one should need home care later on. Does the community allow in-home caregivers, or would they suggest moving to a new facility? If you're considering a CCRC, ask about the transition process from one stage of care to the next. You may also want to ask about what level of care would trigger a requirement that I leave or move to assisted living? A few other questions you may consider is what happens if you need more care? Will you be able to receive more care or will you be required to move again? How does the community support general physical health? 

What do the monthly fees cover?

At most independent living communities, you're charged a monthly membership that's similar to a homeowners' association fee. What does this fee actually cover? Typically you can expect it to take care of outdoor maintenance and landscaping, but you should ask what other services and amenities are included. If your community has a golf course, are you paying for it even if you don't play, or does it carry an extra charge? If transportation is available to nearby shopping and entertainment centers, are the charges included? What are the move-out policies? Make sure you understand all the details, because the answers at each independent living community will be different.

What types of meals are served and when?

Some communities will offer meals. If so, find out how many meals per day they serve and the timing of each. What options are offered outside of normal meal hours? How do you accommodate dietary restrictions?  How often do the menus change?                  

What activities are provided?

Most communities will offer activities for their residents. Find out what activities are offered, typically what the turnout rate is, and are there both activities during the week as well as the weekend? Are there any classes or lectures onsite? Are there religious services on-site?  Having activities built into your schedule will make for a great social life.

What is the ratio of men to women?

Depending on the living environment you are looking for you might want to ask this question. You may also ask what is the percentage of couples vs single residents?   

Are guests welcome?

If you're in an independent living community where you've purchased your own home, you can probably host any guests you please, although there may be restrictions on your minor grandchildren staying for extended periods. Other forms of independent living communities may place restrictions on overnight guests. If you share a common dining facility, you may have to make arrangements in advance or pay for guests' meals. If you plan on having frequent visitors or doing a lot of entertaining, you should make sure you know what's acceptable. Don't forget to ask about parking availability for your guests as well.

What support services are available?

Some independent living communities include basic housekeeping and maintenance services, while others don't. See what help you have available to make life easier. Does your private living space contain laundry facilities, or do you have to share them with others in the community? What transportation is available for medical appointments and shopping? What services are provided and which will cost extra?  The community staff should be able to provide a complete list of all available support.

Are there transportation services available?

If the independent living community offers transportation services, find out where they are willing to take you. Find out if there is a limit on how far you can go and is the transportation only to certain places at certain times, or can you go anywhere in a specific radius?   

How safe and secure are the facilities?

Some independent living communities sit behind gates, with guards checking the ID of all vendors and visitors. Others may be content with a lock at the front door. If you have concerns about security, make sure you learn about all the precautions the community takes, such as cameras, alarms, and security guards. Ask as well about cybersecurity precautions if you expect to use the community's Wi-Fi. In addition, check your individual unit for security features such as handrails, intercoms, or emergency alert systems.

Is there an open apartment you can see on the tour?

The appearance of the community is very important both inside and out. Find out if there is a common area where you can entertain and socialize?  Can you bring your own car? If so, where can you park it?  On the inside find out if the apartments have cable TV and wireless internet as well as if there is a community computer room.                                                

Are pets allowed?

While pets are typically allowed in larger independent living communities, there may be restrictions on the breed or size of certain pets. In smaller facilities where residents are sharing indoor common areas, you may experience even more restrictions. If you or your loved one is hoping to bring a beloved pet with you, or if you have various animal allergies, make sure you get the answer to this question.

Evaluating what you saw on your tour

Once you've toured the independent living communities you've researched, it's time to assess what you've learned. Take notes while you're there, and pick up all the material they offer you. You may be given floor plans, payment details, activity calendars, and promotional brochures. Keep these materials so you can keep straight what you saw and learned at each community. You may also want to take photos with your phone, or even take video with your own audio commentary to help you evaluate what you saw.

When you have the answers to your questions, you can evaluate your own needs and preferences to make a smart decision regarding your move to an independent living community.

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written by:
Arthur Bretscheider
Arthur Bretschneider is CEO and Co-Founder of Seniorly. As a third generation leader in the senior living industry, Arthur brings both deep compassion and a wealth of practical experience to his work at Seniorly. Arthur holds an MBA from Haas School of Business and has been featured in the New York Times and Forbes Magazine as a thought leader in the senior living space. Arthur is a passionate and vocal advocate for improving the lives of older adults through community, and believes strongly that structured senior living environments can positively impact the aging experience.
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