Senior Living Decoded: Comparing Options and What to Expect

Senior Living Decoded: Comparing Options and What to Expect

Discover what senior living looks like today

By Arthur Bretschneider Updated on Oct 5, 2023

As the baby boomer generation enters its golden years, we're seeing a rethinking of the aging experience at every turn. Older adults today are redefining fitness, productivity and purpose in advanced age, and that includes how we choose to live.

In fact, there is an increasing demand for comfortable, engaging, and purposeful living options that cater to the unique needs of today's seniors. While senior communities may be a common concept, many seniors and their family members aren't familiar with the different types of housing options for older adults, so research can feel like a daunting task. So whether you're looking for yourself, an aging parent, or a loved one, here's everything you need to know:

8 types of senior living communities

The term “senior living community” is really an umbrella term used to describe several different types of housing for seniors that are 55 years or older. These residential facilities are built to accommodate several types of lifestyles and medical needs. Here's a quick list of the most common types of senior living:

  • Independent living: Offers a maintenance-free lifestyle with various amenities and social activities for seniors who are able to live independently. This kind of community is ideal for older adults who want to maintain a sense of agency and independence and reduce the level of household responsibility and commitment.
  • Assisted living: Provides personalized care and assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as medication management, bathing, and dressing for seniors who require some support.
  • Memory care: Specializes in caring for individuals with Alzheimer's or other dementias, offering safety, support for activities of daily living, and tailored programming to enhance cognitive function and quality of life.
  • Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs): Sometimes known as life plan communities, these facilities provide a comprehensive range of senior care options including independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing within one community, allowing seniors to transition between levels of care as needed.
  • Skilled nursing facilities: Often referred to as a nursing homes, these communities deliver round-the-clock medical care and rehabilitation services for seniors who require complex care or are recovering from an illness, surgery, or injury.
  • Residential care homes: Also known as board and care homes, they offer homelike environments with personalized senior care, catering to a smaller group of residents ensuring close relationships between staff and seniors.
  • Retirement home: A generic term that refers to a community of seniors, 55 and over, living in something similar to a multi-residence apartment or condominium complex. 
  • Active Adult Communities: Specifically designed for individuals aged 55+ who enjoy an active lifestyle, most communities offer resort-style amenities, social events, and recreational activities without on-site healthcare services, maintaining a focus on wellness and independence for vibrant seniors.

A final note: many facilities offer multiple care types, the most common being those that offer both assisted and independent living, or those that offer assisted living and memory care. This allows residents to age in place as care needs change over time.

12 benefits of a senior living community

Senior living communities offer a range of benefits for the elderly, promoting their well-being and providing support as they age. Whether you're looking at independent living or a nursing home, there are some common benefits:

  • Social engagement: Just about every type of senior living community offers social activities, clubs, and events that foster interaction and camaraderie amongst residents, helping to combat isolation and loneliness. Make sure to take a look at the event program if you are visiting a community!
  • Safety and security: While memory care communities typically have a much higher degree of security due to the potential for wandering issues, all communities are designed with the safety of seniors in mind, featuring emergency call systems, round-the-clock staff, and secure entrances to ensure a safe environment for residents.
  • Maintenance-free living: Seniors no longer have to worry about home maintenance and repairs, as these responsibilities are taken care of by the community staff, allowing them to focus on enjoying their retirement. No more cleaning gutters, raking leaves, or worrying about roof leaks!
  • Accessible facilities: All communities are designed to accommodate the unique needs of the elderly, with features like handrails, ramps, and wide doorways, making it easier to navigate and maintain independence. This is especially important for older Americans with disabilities.
  • Thoughtful dining options: Residents receive well-balanced, nutritious food prepared by professional chefs, often catering to individual dietary needs and preferences. In some higher-end communities, dining services are restaurant-quality with rotating menus and even guest chefs!
  • Wellness programs: Many communities offer various fitness classes, exercise facilities, and wellness programs to promote a healthy lifestyle and support overall well-being.
  • Personalized care: For assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing specifically, personalized care plans are tailored by your care team to ensure that each resident receives the appropriate level of assistance and support.
  • Access to healthcare: Communities often have on-site medical and healthcare services or coordinate with local healthcare providers to ensure residents have convenient access to necessary care and other long term care services.
  • Peace of Mind for Families: Family members love knowing that their loved one is in a supportive, caring environment with access to the necessary care and assistance can provide great peace of mind for family members.
  • Aging in Place: Some senior living communities, such as Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), offer the full spectrum of care options, allowing residents to navigate through different levels of care as their needs change, without having to relocate.
  • Transportation Services: Many communities offer transportation service for residents to appointments, shopping, and outings, reducing the need for personal vehicle ownership and reliance on family members for transportation.

Overall, senior living communities provide an enriching and supportive environment for seniors to enjoy their retirement, maintain their independence, and enhance their quality of life.

What is it like to live in a senior living community?

In a word? Awesome. The sense of community is one of the most important factors that impacts residents' overall well-being and happiness. In general, most communities are intentionally designed to foster social interaction and create a supportive, close-knit environment, and they have dedicated staff whose role is to plan and coordinate fun, interesting and stimulating events.

Residents have ample opportunities to engage with friends through organized activities, clubs, and events tailored to accommodate diverse interests and promote camaraderie. This kind of environment encourages forming meaningful friendships, which also serve as an incredible support system for residents navigating their aging experience. In general, the community in a senior living facility often ends up feeling like a second family.

There is also often a council of residents whose role is to advocate, guide and direct the community leadership on ways to improve the residential experience. Typically this council will also include the appointment of a long term care ombudsman, whose role is to advocate for the well-being of residents in the facility. The ombudsman is typically a trained professional appointed at the state level to protect resident rights.

The staff at senior living communities are dedicated to creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere that feels like home, ensuring residents have the care, assistance, advice and encouragement they need to thrive. Overall, the sense of community in a senior living setting is invaluable in helping seniors enjoy an enriching and fulfilling lifestyle.

Ready to start your search?

How much does senior living cost?

The short answer is: it depends. The cost of senior living in most states can vary from $1500 in a personal care or nursing home to $8000 or even $15,000 a month in a higher-end community which includes service for many care types. It all depends on a few key factors:

  • Level of care and assistance: Perhaps the largest determining factor in any senior living cost analysis is the cost of caregivers. As care needs rise, so too does the cost of care. In general, higher acuity care services tend to cost more, as the level of training and expertise needed to deliver the service simply cost more.
  • Geographic location: Just like real estate, urban areas and geographic hotspots typically have higher costs than rural or suburban locations.
  • Size and type of accommodation: Private or shared rooms and luxurious apartments can influence the price.
  • Level of luxury: As with hotels, luxury amenities and services like gourmet dining options, concierge services, fitness programs, and transportation services all tend to increase the overall cost.
  • Entrance fees vs. monthly rentals: Some communities charge a one-time fee, while others operate on a month-to-month rental basis.
  • Pricing structures: All-inclusive, tiered, or à la carte pricing models can impact costs.

Importance of understanding costs: Families and caregivers should thoroughly review and comprehend the cost breakdown to ensure it aligns with their budget and care needs.

How to pay for senior living

The financial commitment required to move to an established community can seen daunting, but with careful research and planning, there are options to support your budget and lessen the financial and legal burden. Understanding the available resources and payment methods can make the transition to a senior living community more manageable for families. Here are a few options on how to pay for senior living:

Private pay options

  • Personal savings: This is the most traditional way to pay for your retirement if you have saved enough to pay out of pocket.
  • Long-Term Care Insurance: This insurance policy will reimburse residents a daily amount for activities of daily living (ADLs). This policy is best utilized when purchased before it is actually needed. In order to use this health insurance again, you will need to be assessed by a medical professional to determine if you need long-term care.
  • Selling your home: If you own your own home, it's likely you have equity in the value of the house.Once you have decided which type of retirement community is best for you, selling your home is the logical first step. The monies from your house sale can help to finance your retirement living expenses.
  • Life insurance: Some life insurance policies have “living benefits” available. A life settlement is the sale of an existing life insurance policy to a third party for more than its cash surrender value but less than its death benefit.
  • Support from loved ones: Families can sometimes pool their finances together to help a loved one afford their senior living.

Financial assistance programs

If private pay options are limited, know that some states offer income-based financial aid programs to help cover the cost of senior living for individuals who qualify. These programs can include state-funded home and community-based services (HCBS) waivers, which provide financial assistance for eligible seniors to receive support with daily living tasks, healthcare, and other services in assisted living facilities or other community-based settings. Here are a few other state and federal supports for senior living:

  • Veterans benefits: Most veterans are eligible for senior living costs through the VA. Take a look at our piece on VA benefits for senior citizens to learn more.  To learn more, check out our article on Veterans Benefits
  • Medicare: Medicare does not pay for assisted living. There are other ways it can help with hospital stays, rehab, and memory care, however. To learn more about Medicare, take a look at our article titled What is Medicare?
  • Medicaid: Medicaid can help with some of the costs of care. Half of Medicaid’s funding comes from the federal government and half from your state, so details of coverage and copays vary tremendously from state to state. To learn more about Medicaid and how it can help, be sure to read What is Medicaid?
  • Medicaid Waiver: The Medicaid Waiver Program also offers an alternative to institutional care by providing home and community-based services, allowing eligible seniors to receive assistance with daily living tasks, healthcare, and support services while remaining in their preferred senior living environment. 

Choosing a senior living facility

Now that you understand the senior living landscape, you may be wondering how to find the right senior living solution for yourself or a loved one. While every family will approach this in a slightly different way depending on their priorities, there is a general blueprint for the discovery and decision process:

  • Engage support: Professional senior living advisors help families through the process of selecting the right senior living community by offering personalized recommendations, comprehensive information about local providers, and facilitating smooth transitions, all while saving time and reducing stress for families.
  • Assess your care needs: Determine the appropriate level of assistance required, such as independent living, assisted living, or memory care, based on the senior's physical, cognitive, and medical needs.
  • Set your budget: Understand the pricing structure, fees, and payment options offered by the community, and ensure it aligns with the family's budget and financial resources.- Location and accessibility: Consider proximity to family, friends, healthcare providers, and other essential services for the senior's convenience and support network.
  • Decide on location: Consider proximity to family, friends, healthcare providers, and other essential services for the senior's convenience and support network. Facility tours and visits: Visit multiple communities to get a feel for the environment, staff, and amenities, and observe how residents are treated and engaged.
  • Build your shortlist: Once you have a good sense of your budget, care needs and where you want to be, it's time to build your shortlist. Browse Seniorly to compare communities and create a list of 3-5 communities for touring.
  • Tour your communities! Visit multiple communities to get a feel for the environment, staff, and amenities, and observe how residents are treated and engaged. Seniorly even has a great touring checklist to help families through this step.

A final word about senior living

Senior living communities offer a range of options to cater to the diverse needs and preferences of older adults, providing a supportive and nurturing environment to enhance their quality of life. From independent living to memory care, each community type is tailored to offer personalized care, social engagement, and access to various amenities. As senior living costs are determined by factors such as care level, location, and amenities, it's crucial for families to understand the payment methods and financial aid resources available. Additionally, as a sense of community plays a vital role in residents' well-being, these communities intentionally foster social interaction and create a close-knit atmosphere where residents and staff form meaningful relationships. Navigating the world of senior living can be overwhelming, but being equipped with the right information enables families to make informed decisions in choosing the best community for their loved ones.

Start your search today!

What is senior housing?

The term “senior housing” is a broad term that can refer to assisted living, independent living, senior apartments, memory care, SNFs, and low-income housing for seniors.

Why are senior apartments cheaper?

The cost of apartment living can be much less expensive than other options. Apartments don’t require as much upkeep as a house nor do you have to purchase anything above and beyond what you need. They also offer maintenance and amenities for one standard fee and most handicap accessible apartments don’t charge any additional fees.

Is senior living the same as assisted living?

Independent living tends to cost less than assisted living, but is usually not covered by Medicare or Medicaid. Assisted living requires a level of care that can not be found in independent living. This tends to make assisted living more expensive.

Does Medicare cover senior living?

Medicare and Medicaid can be options for a stay in a skilled nursing facility. That is the only senior living option that you can be assured will work those government programs. Once you start exploring independent living or assisted living, private pay becomes the way to pay. If you’re a Veteran or the spouse of a Veteran, don’t forget to explore all of the Veteran’s Benefits available for senior living.

How to pay for senior assisted living?

Paying for senior assisted living is usually handled through private pay. There are circumstances when a community might have a Medicare or Medicaid option, but this is few and far between. Long-term care insurance is a great investment early in life to help cover assisted living costs later in life. Finally, Veteran’s can often get assistance from the government if they are qualified.

What is a senior living advisor?

Senior living referral agents, sometimes also called elder care referral agents or senior placement agents (we call them Seniorly Partner Agents), can be a company with several employees or just one senior living expert. In either case, they have a wealth of valuable information about all the various senior housing options, care services, and types of senior living available to you and your loved ones in the local area you are searching. 

written by:
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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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