What you need to know about senior living

From different care options to amenities, this guide is a helpful intro to senior living.

February 11, 2022

4 min read

Senior couple dancing

Senior living can be a complex term for many, describing everything from independent living to a skilled nursing facility – which are two distinctly different living environments.

It’s important to know the various options of senior living, so that if the time ever comes to make a decision of where and when to move your parent or family member, you are prepared and confident in your choice.

In this video, Abby Figueroa, Senior Vice President of Functional Operations at Atria, explains how senior living communities are not the same as nursing homes, and provides more detail about the two different options designed specifically for older adults.

What is senior living?

Generally speaking, senior living can be anything from apartments, condos or townhouses specifically for those 55+ – commonly referred to as “senior housing” – to a thoughtfully designed community where the cost of care, utilities and more are covered under one monthly rate.

Some senior living communities are equipped with amenities such as salons and barber shops, fitness centers, swimming pools and restaurants. Many have a staff that can plan events, group outings and other opportunities to reach personal goals, explore personal interests or simply enjoy the company of others. Senior living communities provide all the comforts of home, without the responsibilities associated with homeownership. Daily tasks like housekeeping, cooking, home maintenance and even transportation are handled for the residents by a dedicated staff.

If your parent lives alone, then he or she would greatly benefit from an all-inclusive community rather than simply an apartment or condo. Many senior living residents report feeling empowered and fulfilled while their adult children witness an improvement to their parents’ mental and emotional well-being.

These types of senior living communities typically fall into three common categories: independent living or retirement communities, assisted living or supportive living, and memory care.

What is independent living?

If your parent leads an active, independent life – and no longer wants the hassle of home ownership and daily tasks like housekeeping – they are probably best suited for independent living. These communities provide daily opportunities for social engagement and the freedom to pursue personal interests without worrying about cooking, cleaning, transportation and home maintenance. Many independent living communities allow residents to arrange third-party home health services in the event care is needed.

What is assisted or supportive living?

Older adults who would benefit from discreet care are best suited for an assisted living community, which is sometimes referred to as supportive living. Here, your parent would enjoy opportunities to socialize and pursue personal interests without the burden of housekeeping and cooking – just like an independent living community. However, with the added benefit of 24-hour support with personal care, medication assistance and incontinence management, your parent will be able to feel more empowered and self-reliant, knowing their needs will be quickly and expertly handled. To provide another layer of professional support, assisted living communities can employ full-time licensed nurses or a physician.

Some independent and assisted living communities partner with rehab facilities to offer therapeutic services on-site. Alternatively, therapists are often able to make “house calls” at the community.

What is memory care?

If your parent has challenges due to Alzheimer’s or other forms of memory impairment, they would greatly benefit from a memory care community. These safe and secure environments offer round-the-clock staff to assist and support with activities of daily living, medication management and more, plus auxiliary programs like support groups for caregivers, programs geared to improve cognitive health, and events to keep residents happy and engaged.

A thoughtfully designed memory care community will leave no detail unturned for the well-being of residents. For example, playing music throughout common spaces and using vibrantly colored dinnerware to increase food recognition and appetite all play a part.

How are senior living communities different from nursing homes?

The residents who live in nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities often have conditions best treated with long-term palliative care or prescription medication administration. They may also require specialized rehab services such as speech or occupational therapy, though these services can also be arranged in senior living communities through a third-party provider. The primary focus of nursing homes is to provide 24-hour supervision and medical attention.

Some people may stay for short-term rehab following a hospitalization. Some nursing homes may offer hospice care.

Because of its clinical setting, nursing homes are restrictive by nature – especially when considering the lack of events and opportunities for social connection that are offered in independent and assisted living communities.

As you continue to research senior living communities and senior care options available to you, make notes to compare the cost and quality of each option. Consider visiting each community alone for preliminary observations, and then – when the time feels right – with your parent to see how they feel about it. You may even be able to arrange an overnight trial or short-term stay to test the waters of senior living.

If researching and visiting senior living communities creates resistance from your parent, let them know you are simply preparing in case the need ever arises. Being informed and knowing your options leads to better decision making. The staff at each community can help answer any questions you have, whether your family is ready to make a decision or just researching.


Our Infographic on What Senior Living Is (PDF)

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