Independent living (IL) communities are designed for self-sufficient seniors who do not want the responsibilities and maintenance that come with home ownership. This type of senior living gives elders the chance to live in a social setting, pursue activities based entirely on their interests and preferences, and dine at on-site restaurants if they don’t want to cook. IL communities also go by other names, such as retirement communities, 55+ communities and active adult communities.

Housing types at IL vary widely, from apartment-style living to free-standing single-family homes. Independent living is for older people who are looking to connect with peers and enjoy an active lifestyle free from concerns like landscaping, home maintenance, security, etc.

The Difference Between Independent Living and Assisted Living Communities

The key difference between independent living and other housing options is the level of assistance provided with activities of daily living (ADLs) and health care. IL does not include medical care or feature onsite nursing staff to help with tasks like bathing, dressing and eating. A senior can choose to hire in-home care if assistance with these tasks is needed, but it must be from an outside care provider.

Read: Activities of Daily Living: Why This Measure Matters

Individuals who require regular help with ADLs would be better suited for an assisted living community, while those who need around-the-clock help with ADLs and/or medical care would require placement in a skilled nursing facility.

Who Is a Candidate for Independent Living?

Again, a senior’s needs must not exceed what the IL community can provide. This determination depends on the person’s ability to independently complete ADLs and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs), which are more complex skills like managing finances, cooking, running a household and managing medications.

Any type of senior living community should conduct a thorough functional assessment before a senior moves in to determine their level of self-sufficiency and ensure they are a good fit as a resident. This in-person assessment can help professionals screen for cognitive issues like dementia, identify the impact of physical health problems, if any, and determine what kinds of services or amenities a prospective resident may benefit from.

Read: Needs Assessment: The First Step When Moving to Senior Housing

Needing some extra help doesn’t necessarily rule out independent living, but it will likely increase the price. For example, a senior may no longer be able to (or want to) keep up with cooking or managing a household, but most IL communities offer onsite restaurant-style dining as well as laundry and housekeeping services.

Some elders who live in independent living hire in-home care at an added cost or receive some assistance from local family caregivers. Seniors can thrive in IL for many years, but if their safety or health become jeopardized by living without regular care or supervision, they will need to bring in supplemental care or move to a type of senior living that provides a higher level of care.

Services and Amenities Offered at Independent Living Communities

Just because IL communities don’t provide assistance with ADLs and skilled nursing doesn’t mean they don’t have much to offer. Most communities feature a plethora of amenities, activities, events and social opportunities for active seniors.

For example, transportation to local stores, doctor’s appointments and community excursions is usually included. An extensive activity calendar often features regular onsite exercise classes, arts and crafts, card and game groups, and social events. A senior can also elect to enjoy up to three daily meals in a community dining room with fellow residents. Common amenities might include a community pool, tennis courts, gym, on-site salon, movie theater, cafe, golf course, bocce ball courts and much more.

Another benefit of IL is the fact that residents don’t have the responsibility of maintaining their homes or the surrounding premises. Maintenance, landscaping, housekeeping, laundry and repairs are often included in the base rate for IL. This allows seniors to focus on enjoying activities and amenities with their peers rather than maintaining their homes.

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How Much Does Independent Living Cost?

The cost of IL varies widely, depending on where the community is located, the types of amenities it offers, the size of the unit a senior chooses to live in and the services a senior decides to receive. Options range from small rental units with few extra services for $1,500 per month in some states to retirement communities composed of single-family homes set on an 18-hole golf course for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because these communities vary so much, it’s important to do plenty of research on potential candidates.

There are two common models for paying for independent living. In the first, residents pay a monthly rental fee. That fee usually includes a package of basic services, such as a certain number of daily meals, housekeeping, transportation and utilities. In other IL communities, services are available on an a la carte basis in addition to the monthly rental fee. With this model, seniors can purchase a dwelling (condo, villa, single-family home, etc.) in a planned community. The community then charges a basic monthly fee, similar to a homeowner’s association fee in a condominium community, for use and maintenance of the amenities and grounds. The senior can then elect to pay for additional services, such as meals and transportation as desired.

Does Medicare Cover the Cost of Independent Living Communities?

Medicare does not cover the cost of independent living and neither does Medicaid, private health insurance or veterans benefits. Seniors typically pay for this kind of senior living privately using their own savings and income. Long-term care insurance and other benefits may help cover in-home care services that can allow an elder to continue living in IL.

What Happens if a Senior’s Care Needs Increase?

As mentioned above, when a senior’s care needs increase, there are a few different options for ensuring they are met. Bringing in supplemental care from an in-home care company and/or a willing family caregiver is one option. Depending on how significantly their needs have increased, a senior may need to relocate to an assisted living community, memory care unit or a skilled nursing facility.

Some specialized senior living communities offer all of these levels of care on one campus, which allows a senior to more seamlessly move to higher levels of care (at higher cost) while remaining in a familiar setting. These are known as continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs).

Read: CCRCs: The Sophisticated Way to Age In Place

What to Look for in an Independent Living Community

When you tour a prospective community, take notice of what kinds of activities the residents are involved in, and ask to see the monthly or weekly activity calendar. Be sure to enjoy a meal at one of the community dining rooms or at the very least ask for a sample menu to get a feel for the type and quality of food that is served. Make a point of interacting with other residents to get an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to live in the community. Get a good look at the individual units or homes the community offers as well as the common areas, game rooms and amenities. Ask what kind of security measures the community takes and how medical emergencies are handled. Inquire about transportation options and their policies on hiring in-home care. Also, take a spin around the neighborhood to make sure the library, post office, grocery store, pharmacy and other favorite establishments are conveniently located close by.