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When older adults picture their retirement years, many desire a relaxed pace of life enjoying hobbies and cherishing time with friends and family. However, continual responsibilities like household upkeep and cooking can get too burdensome for those seeking a leisurely lifestyle.
As the name suggests, independent living is a great solution. Designed for active seniors, these communities allow them to keep their independence and privacy, while also enjoying services and amenities to make their lives easier.
In this guide, we will explain what makes independent living different from other senior living options, review important factors like services and cost, and provide answers to frequently asked questions to help you decide if independent living is the right choice for you or your loved one.
What Is Independent Living?
Independent living communities (also known as active adult, 55+, 62+, senior living, or retirement communities) offer healthy seniors the freedom to maintain a recreational and social lifestyle with the added convenience of services such as housekeeping, prepared meals and transportation. The average age of seniors in these communities is 74-75 years old, and living options vary from private homes to apartments and suites. Residents enjoy the assurance of 24-hour security and staff availability if assistance is needed.
The main distinction between independent living and other types of senior living is that the focus is not on providing regular medical care or help with activities of daily living like bathing and dressing, although some facilities do have onsite assisted living and medical staff to step in as needed. This emphasis on maintaining independence makes it a great choice for self-reliant seniors who desire community living, but do not currently need daily access to nursing staff or personal care assistance.
Types of Independent Living
Although there are basic commonalities among all independent living communities, they are not created equal. As you start your search, you might notice different terms for housing types that fall under the umbrella of independent living for seniors. For example, retirement communities and senior apartments offer slightly different services. Read on to understand the differences between these independent living types.
Retirement Homes or Retirement Communities
Depending on the community, retirement homes offer an array of living options for seniors ranging from apartments and townhomes to stand-alone houses. While these communities are designed with residents’ independence in mind, some offer 24-hour emergency help and access to medical care in case there is a health change. The trademark of traditional retirement communities is access to convenient onsite services, including benefits like meals, transportation, laundry service, social and educational activities, theater or game room, pool, and fitness center. As a result of these extra services and subsequent staffing needs, the monthly cost of retirement communities tends to be higher than other independent living types, like senior apartments.
Senior apartments, also referred to as congregate care housing, offer some of the same amenities as retirement communities but with more limited services. One or two bedroom apartments with full kitchens and bathrooms allow seniors to maintain privacy, while shared common spaces like dining rooms encourage a social, community feel. These 55+ or 62+ complexes usually offer disability-accessible accommodations for those who use a wheelchair or walker. Onsite services differ, but might include recreational programs, transportation and communal dining. The rent can be substantially less than that of a similar unit in a retirement community, and often includes the cost of indoor and outdoor facility maintenance.
Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC)
Also known as life plan communities, continuing care retirement communities offer a wide spectrum of residential options ranging from independent living to nursing home care all in one location. Seniors appreciate the freedom of an active, social lifestyle with the added safety net of onsite medical care and the knowledge that long-term care is available if it is needed. These communities eliminate the need for moving to different facilities as health needs change over time. Instead, residents benefit from the convenience of an all-in-one community that they can call home for years to come.
Independent Living Services and Amenities
Since many seniors choose independent living for the access to convenient services and amenities, it’s important to identify which ones are most valuable to you. Whether you prefer to have meals cooked for you, social activities on your calendar, or exercise classes to keep you active, it’s helpful to know what your “must-haves” are when looking for an independent living community to call home. . Not all communities offer the full range of services and amenities, but most offer at least one of the common options we explain below.
Meals and Home Maintenance
A quality dining experience is one of the most important services for many people considering independent living. When a resident moves in, they are usually offered some sort of dining package with access to food prepared by culinary chefs and registered dietitians. Some communities offer meal credit programs that provide a certain number of meals per month, while others offer an a-la-carte approach. Either way, set meal times in the dining room take the stress out of shopping and cooking, with the added benefit of socializing with friends.
For some people seeking independent living, cleaning and home maintenance are responsibilities that they are excited to leave behind. Communities often offer weekly home or apartment cleanings to keep your space tidy, along with full laundry service. If issues like a broken appliance arise, a quick phone call to an onsite technician will take care of it for you. No more cleaning out the gutters or mowing the lawn — groundskeepers keep the area well groomed.
Recreational, Social and Educational Activities
Retirement is the time to have fun and try new, life-enriching activities. That’s why independent living communities provide a wide range of options for every interest. Exercise offerings like yoga, tai chi, walking clubs, personal training and water aerobics keep you feeling strong and physically fit. If you’re interested in learning something new alongside friends, many communities offer workshops for things like cooking, technology, dance, or painting. Pre-organized social gatherings allow residents to simply show up and enjoy a full calendar of happy hours, excursions to local attractions, movie nights, book clubs, wine and cheese tastings, and more.
Convenience is king at independent living communities, and access to onsite amenities plays a large role. Common spaces like fireside living rooms, naturally-lit sunrooms and comfortable patios are great places to catch up with friends and family. Fitness centers and beauty salons keep residents looking and feeling their best, without the hassle of driving and facing crowds. Game and theater rooms, libraries, bars, tennis courts and pools are designed to keep seniors engaged without having to step foot off campus. Some communities also feature extras like an onsite general store, community vegetable garden, and a chapel for worship.
Who Is a Good Fit for Independent Living?
With so many types of senior living available, it can be difficult to understand which community type is the best fit for you or your loved one. We’ve made the decision easier by identifying some of the common qualities of independent living residents. Some of the people who should consider independent living include:
- Seniors who do not need assistance with activities of daily living (ADLs), like bathing, dressing and medication management
- Seniors who do not need medical assistance on a regular basis
- Seniors who want assistance with cooking and home maintenance, but are not ready to give up their independent lifestyle
- Seniors who live alone or feel isolated and would like to meet others through social and recreational activities
- Seniors who are retired and ready to live a more laid back, convenient lifestyle
- Seniors who desire the safety net of a 24-hour staff who can quickly provide help if needed
Seniors Who Should Consider Other Types of Senior Living
Independent living communities are not the right choice for everyone. In situations when the senior needs help with ADLs or access to medical care, they should consider another type of senior living. Below, we describe some alternative options.
- Seniors who need help with their ADLs or have an in-home caregiver should consider assisted living. Assisted living facilities are geared towards seniors who still enjoy social and recreational activities, which makes it a great option for those seeking to maintain an active lifestyle.
- Nursing homes are a good fit for seniors who need regular medical care or have high-level medical needs. These skilled nursing facilities are staffed with professionals that provide 24/7 care to seniors, including assistance with their ADLs.
- Seniors who are living with Alzheimer’s or dementia are better suited for a memory care community. These facilities provide expertise and personal care specifically designed for those living with memory impairment.
Independent Living Costs
Independent living costs can vary dramatically depending on where you live and the specific community. Retirement communities that offer ample amenities and include the cost of meals in their monthly price will be much more expensive than basic senior apartments. One thing that is consistent is that independent living is the least expensive type of senior care because it does not offer personal care assistance and health services. In general, independent living will cost 30-50% less per month than assisted living.
Below, you can see the average annual and monthly costs for independent living in each state, calculated based on Genworth Financial’s reported assisted living costs.
Financial Assistance Options for Independent Living
Many seniors live on fixed incomes. Even with programs like Social Security, seniors’ income is often not enough to cover the cost of housing and living expenses. To help, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) subsidizes senior housing complexes by reducing rent for low-income seniors. Visit the HUD resources website to easily search an area for low-income senior housing. These complexes often have long waiting lists and strict criteria for residency, so it is essential to plan ahead.
Additionally, the Administration for Community Living (ACL) allocates part of its annual budget to senior service programs each year. These funds are used to pay for home and community-based services at local, non-residential senior centers. Some of these services include meal and nutrition programs, fitness programs, transportation, social activities, employment assistance and more.
What to Consider When Choosing an Independent Living Community
There are many factors to consider when looking into an independent living community. Below, we break down the three main categories to focus on and specific questions to ask as you make your decision.
Social and Recreational Opportunities
The abundance of social and recreational activities is one factor that sets independent living apart from other senior living communities. Retired seniors in good health want to make the most of their “golden years,” enjoying hobbies and extra time with friends. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that a community offers a variety of scheduled activities for all interests. If you’re unsure, ask the following questions:
- Request to look at the community’s monthly calendar. How often are social and recreational activities planned for the residents?
- Does the monthly calendar include activities to keep residents in good physical and mental shape, like yoga class or card games?
- Is there a mix of onsite and offsite activities scheduled?
- Does the community have meeting spaces to promote social interaction, like living rooms, porches, and a communal dining room?
- When visiting, do you see residents interacting with each other, or do people mostly keep to themselves?
- Do residents regularly celebrate holidays and birthdays together?
- Do residents participate in and enjoy the planned activities?
Convenience Services and Amenities
In addition to the social calendar, seniors seeking independent living should consider the caliber of a community’s services and amenities before moving in. Now is the time to think about what is most important to you. Perhaps you are really looking forward to dropping the responsibilities of house cleaning and laundry, or you can’t imagine life without playing a round of tennis most mornings. Take some time to decide which services and amenities are your must-haves. Here are some questions to get you started:
- How often does the community offer home or apartment cleanings? What is included in the cleaning (vacuuming, dusting, etc.)?
- Do any convenience services, like laundry, cost extra?
- Are the onsite amenities like the fitness center and pool well maintained and clean?
- What entertainment or lifestyle extras are available (beauty salon, movie theater room, general store, etc.)?
- How quickly are items in the home or apartment fixed if there is an issue? Is there an onsite maintenance team?
- Does the community have enough staff to support their services and amenities?
- Is the staff resident-focused? Are they available to ensure the residents’ convenience and comfort? Do they go the extra mile?
The dining experience is a large factor to consider when researching independent living communities. Residents often want to maintain their independence when it comes to food choices, meal times and dining environment. When thinking over your options, look for communities that offer flexible dining services to meet your changing needs. We’ve highlighted a few considerations below:
- What type of dining packages are offered, and what is the cost? Do you pay a monthly fee for three meals a day, or can you opt-in to only one or two meals a day?
- Does the community offer restaurant-like dining with daily meal choices, or are the residents served the same meal with limited opportunity for alternatives?
- Some communities include residents in meal planning and take special requests, so ask about how involved you can be in deciding what goes on the menu. If you have any dietary restrictions such as a low-sodium or gluten-free diet, make sure to ask if the kitchen will accommodate.
- Is there a qualified dietician on staff to assist in creating the menus?
- Ask if you can stay to enjoy a meal when taking your community tour. Be sure to consider the meal’s overall taste, use of fresh ingredients and nutritional value.
- Does the dining room have a floor plan that encourages residents to relax, socialize and enjoy their food? Are residents encouraged to eat in the dining room?
- Verify dining hours so you know when meals are served and if you’ll be able to order off a menu during non-meal hours, as well as what snacks are served and when.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between independent living and assisted living?
The main difference between independent living and assisted living is that you will not receive regular medical assistance and help with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing, dressing, medication management at independent living communities. As the name suggests, independent living gives healthy seniors the freedom to enjoy a relaxed lifestyle by providing convenient services and amenities to make their lives easier. Assisted living, on the other hand, provides regular support with ADLs and some other health services.
What is the average cost of living in a retirement community?
Although retirement community costs vary greatly depending on their size, location and services offered, the average cost is about $1,500 – $10,000 a month. Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC) are typically more expensive because they offer the benefits of independent living, assisted living and nursing home care all within one community. Retirement communities generally cost less than stand-alone assisted living or nursing home communities because skilled onsite medical and nursing staff are not required.
How do you know if independent living is right for you?
If you are an active, healthy senior who is interested in living out your retirement years in a stress-free, social and safe environment, then independent living might be a good fit for you. Some seniors who live alone find independent living to ease their loneliness and burden of keeping a clean, well-maintained home by themselves. Others are interested in adding more zest to their life with a full social calendar of planned activities like painting classes, tennis and movie nights.
Do you have to be 55+ to live in an independent living community?
Independent living communities are intentionally designed to meet the needs of seniors. As such, certain age rules are in place to protect these communities from taking on younger residents that can potentially disrupt this design. Many 55+ communities have a requirement that at least 80% of their residents are over the age of 55. That being said, there are occasionally exceptions to this rule. If the 55+ resident has a spouse who is at least 40 years old or a child who is at least 18 years old, then they may sometimes reside together.