Suppose for a moment that you, a loved one, or a client is considering moving to a retirement community. Pull up Google or another online search engine and type up the term “senior living” or “retirement community.” You will find results on everything from active adult living to assisted living to memory care, and much more.Understanding the differences between these and other types of providers can save you a lot of time as you research the choice that best meets your particular needs and objectives.

Senior living communities can generally be categorized among the following: 1) independent living, 2) independent- plus, 3) assisted living, and 4) skilled nursing care. Independent living communities cater to residents who are able to live, well, independently. Some independent living communities require the home or condo to be purchased, while others are rental arrangements. Residents of independent living communities may very well require assisted living at some point, but the community does not provide any assisted living or healthcare services.

Independent-plus communities are almost always apartment style rentals, which cater to those who live fully or mostly independently. If a resident should require limited assisted living services the community is equipped to provide such services to the resident in their own apartment. The cost of these services is paid by the resident at the going rate.

Assisted living communities cater to those who require substantial assistance with the daily activities of living, such as eating, dressing, or bathing, but who do not require 24-hour skilled nursing care. Basic services are covered under the monthly rate but other services may be an additional cost.

Skilled nursing facilities provide services for those who require a higher level of care, often 24-hour care provided by a RN or LPN. Increasingly, skilled nursing facilities are adding more memory care units for residents with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive impairments. As with an assisted living facility, there will likely be a base rate and additional ancillary expenses.

Technically speaking, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities are not always considered senior living communities because many do not even carry a minimum age requirement. Although the majority of residents are older there are an increasing number of residents under the age of 55 residing in such facilities.

There is one other type of senior living community that is a hybrid of each of the above called a continuing care retirement community, or CCRC. CCRCs come in many different shapes and sizes but the common denominator is that the services provided within a CCRC span the full continuum of care. Residents move in while they are still able to live independently, but have the peace of mind of knowing that if they should require assisted living or nursing care in the future it will be provided by the community within which they already live. Many CCRCs require an entry fee, while others operate under and equity or rental arrangement. The specific type of residency contract will determine if and by how much the resident’s monthly rate will increase when they begin require care services.

Now that you understand how one type of retirement community varies from another I hope you will be in better position to narrow down your choices when you begin to do your research. 

Brad is co-founder of My LifeSite (formerly LifeSite Logics), a North Carolina company that develops web-based tools and resources designed to help families make better-informed decisions when considering a continuing care retirement community. Brad previously spent thirteen years as a financial advisor before starting My LifeSite and still maintains the Certified Financial Planner™ certification. His extensive knowledge of the retirement living industry, combined with his financial planning background, allows him to provide valuable insights about lifestyle, healthcare, and financial planning considerations related to this significant life decision. He’s frequently quoted in national media such as Kiplinger’s Magazine, Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch, USA Today and the New York Times. Brad is the author of a book released in 2014 titled, “What’s the Deal with Retirement Communities?” and speaks regularly for retirement living providers, industry trade organizations, life-long learning classes, and other groups across the country.