What exactly is Independent Living?

Independent Living, also called a retirement community, is for people who are able to live on their own but do not want to maintain a home.

Independent living is simply any housing arrangement designed exclusively for seniors, generally those aged 55 and over. Housing varies widely, from apartment-style living to free-standing homes. In some, cases, the senior purchases a single-family home, and enjoys the benefits of living in neighborhoods and communities designed to be friendlier to older adults, often more compact, with easier navigation and yard maintenance and housekeeping.

Independent living gives elders the chance to participate in community life, pursue activities based entirely on their interests and preferences and dine at restaurants if they don't want to cook. Independent living is for older people looking to connect with peers and enjoy an active lifestyle free from concerns about home ownership, e.g. landscaping, maintenance, security, etc.

However, Independent Living does not provide medical care, or nursing staff. A senior can choose to hire home care, if it is needed, but home care is not an included component of Independent Living.

What's the difference between Independent Living, Assisted Living and other senior living options?

The key difference between Independent Living and other housing options is the level of assistance offered for daily living activities and health care. If your loved one requires round-the-clock help with eating, dressing, and using the toilet, or requires regular medical assistance, other housing options such as assisted living facilities or nursing homes may be a better fit.

Practical needs to consider might include:

  • Transportation. Do they plan to continue driving? What are the options in their area if they need to stop driving at some point?
  • Finances. Do they have the income to cover their needs, including in-home care if they could use it?
  • Health care. Do they live near their doctors and a hospital? What do they plan to do if they have a medical problem on the weekend or on a holiday?
  • Household maintenance. Which tasks can they still handle, and which do they need help with? Who is available -- volunteer or professional -- to help out?
  • Cognitive ability. Does the elder show any slight signs of dementia?

How will the family (and the community staff) know if mom or dad can live safely in Independent Living?

The determination depends on the person's ability to manage tasks and activities that are usually necessary in daily life. These tasks include the activities of daily living (ADLs), which refer to basic self-care such as dressing and getting around the house, as well as instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), which are more mentally complex skills such as managing grocery shopping and finances.

Any community you select should conduct a thorough functional assessment before your parent moves in. This in-person assessment can help professionals do the following:

  • Diagnose and stage cognitive problems, such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia
  • Identify the impact of worsening physical diseases, such as heart failure and COPD
  • Diagnose delirium, a state of acute mental confusion that can be the only outward sign of a life-threatening illness
  • Figure out what kinds of services or other assistance an older person needs in order to safely live in Independent Living

What if mom or dad needs some help? Does that rule out Independent Living?

Needing some extra help doesn't rule out Independent Living – but it will likely up the price. Some elders who live in Independent Living hire in-home care. In-home care options run the gamut from basic services such as housekeeping and meal delivery all the way to daily nurse and medical services.

It all depends on the person's ability to manage tasks and activities that are usually necessary in daily life. But extra help does mean more money. In addition to any monthly fees charged by the community, the home care agency will charge its own, separate fees. Some communities even have on-site home care which the elder can hire.

What's the cost?

The cost of independent-living varies widely, depending on what's offered and where. Options range from small rental units with few extra services, available for $1,500 per month in some states, all the way to retirement communities that offer homes or townhouses to buy for hundreds of thousands of dollars. At any one particular place, the cost may also vary depending on the size of the living unit and the services provided.

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What's the payment structure?

There are two common models for paying for Independent Living. In the first, residents pay a monthly rental fee. That fee may include a package of services, such as meals, housekeeping, transportation, utilities, etc. Or, those services are available on an a la carte basis in addition to the monthly rental fee. Sometimes, seniors can purchase a condo, villa -- or even a single family home with a garage, yard or perhaps a pool -- in a planned community. The community charges a monthly fee, similar to that in a condo community. Again, depending on the community that fee may or may not include services like meals and housekeeping.

Does Medicare cover the cost of Independent Living communities?

Medicare does not cover the cost of Independent Living. Long-term care insurance with home care benefits can sometimes contribute to overall independent living costs, as can a life insurance policy. But many families have to get creative in using family assets to pay for an independent-living community

What happens as mom or dad ages and needs more care?

When you start your search, be sure to look into independent-living facilities that are connected to an assisted-living facility, which would allow your loved one to move to a higher level of care (at higher cost) while remaining in a comfortable, familiar setting, if and when independent living isn't possible anymore.

What should I look for in an Independent Living community?

When you tour the campus, notice what kinds of activities the residents are involved in, and check the walls to see what other recreations are posted. Ask for an opportunity to enjoy a meal on-campus — and spend that time interacting with other residents and asking questions about the menu. If your parent plans to spend a lot of time outside of their home, look at the community areas, game rooms, coffee shop, and fitness center. Find out about emergency medical services, transportation and home care options. Also drive or stroll around the neighborhood where the community is located, to make sure the library, post office, and other establishments are convenient.