After “doing it yourself” for decades, it’s hard to let go of that independence despite the changes that aging brings, changes that often require adaptation and perhaps a little more dependence.
Independent living is a perfect option for easing into that new phase, for transitioning to a senior housing arrangement that offers help as needed (and a break from some of those life obligations and chores we wouldn’t mind eliminating) while essentially preserving one’s independence.
As diverse as the residents who choose to make it their new home, independent living is a broad category of senior housing that offers a range of amenities, features, programs and services, social events, and floor plans. We’ll walk you through them in this guide.
First, a look at what independent living encompasses…
Independent Living, Defined
When referring to this type of senior housing, several terms apply: retirement living, retirement communities, independent senior housing, independent living, senior living, subsidized/low-income senior housing, senior living apartments, senior homes, senior living communities, CCRCs (continuing care retirement communities). No matter what the sign says, independent living is essentially a level of care where seniors receive housing (in various settings and styles) and services (also wide-ranging in type and breadth) but are ultimately responsible for daily personal care. For the most part, residents live independently, without assistance (we’ll learn about exceptions later in the guide).
Read about independent living trends, the top four reasons to choose this senior housing category, and other related topics here at SeniorsforLiving.com. Also check out Independent Living: An Overview of Settings and Services.
Housing Options & Floor Plans
Luxury apartments, cottages, ranches , studios, efficiency apartments, townhomes, condos – no need to feel limited when it comes to what type of independent living space you wish to occupy. Some communities even offer “hybrid” housing, a new and creative option that crosses cottage-style spaces with an apartment-style layout.
There are countless variations on the standard one- or two-bedroom floor plan at most of the independent living communities on today’s market. Do you want a den or small office space in your apartment (i.e. a place to play Wii with the grandkids when they visit)? A smaller kitchen but a larger living room? More closet space? A half bath and a full bath, or two full baths? Prefer a large foyer upon entrance? Balcony or patio?
Of course, once you’ve selected the footprint, it’s time to customize: wall-to-wall carpet or hardwood floors? Linoleum vs. tile in the kitchen and bathrooms? A corner apartment on the top floor or a ground level walk-in?
Preview these floor plans to get an idea of what’s available:
- Classic Plan A, 2 bedrooms, 2 baths at The Village at Victory Lakes in Lindenhurst, Illinois
- The Jefferson Floor Plan, 1 bedroom, 1 bath at The Fountains at Washington House in Alexandria, Virginia
- Studio, Studio Deluxe, and 1-bedroom layouts at Atria Valley View in Walnut Creek, California
Although most independent living units are conveniently situated on one floor, some units may have a basement level or second floor. If you’re bringing a car(s) with you, the majority of independent living complexes offer parking in their general lot and secured parking in a garage space that usually sits below the apartment building.
Getting Around: Transportation Options
While space is offered for one or more vehicles that may accompany an independent living move, many communities provide transportation services, too, a welcome option when the weather is bad, when you don’t feel like driving, or if you’d rather leave your car behind altogether.
Should you choose the latter, be sure to check with the community you’re considering regarding how often transportation is available, what the additional cost may be, how far they’ll take you, etc. In some cases, transportation is provided only for medical appointments or social outings and may only be available on a first-come, first-served basis. Determine what your transportation needs are and ask the facility what they offer.
Even if you don’t use it, you may still want to keep a car on campus. Of course, you could call a cab or access public transportation too.
- Check ElderCare.gov for transportation options in your region.
- Find a local affiliate of iTNAmerica, a non-profit organization that partners with local providers to offer “dignified transportation for seniors.”
- Learn about mobility options, safe driving programs, transportation providers and more at the National Center on Senior Transportation.
Never Be Bored: Independent Living Activities, Trips & Events
Each independent living community has its own unique approach to providing entertainment and engagement opportunities to residents and their guests.
Many communities offer full resident access (with some privileges for guest use, too) to an abundance of on-site activities and resources including: libraries, fitness centers, computer labs, community rooms, private dining rooms, tennis courts, bocce courts, shuffleboard space, bowling alleys, indoor/outdoor swimming pools, putting greens, woodshops/workshops, art space (studios, pottery wheels/kilns, painting/drawing facilities, etc.), gift shops, spa/beauty salon, gardens, walking paths, courtyards, outdoor cooking/entertaining space, movie theaters, performing arts centers, billiards rooms, game rooms, and more. In other words, there are limitless individual and social recreational opportunities, all within the limits of the campus.
A full-time employee (at times, with a staff complement of full-/part-time assistants) may be in charge of planning, providing and promoting events (i.e. concerts, lectures, theme parties, etc.), trips (local shopping/dining outings, annual weekend getaways or cruises, monthly movie trips, sporting events, etc.), and other activities (arts and crafts programs, book clubs, Bingo, trivia, golf tournaments, exercise/fitness programs, etc.) for the community. In some cases, a volunteer council or committee of residents does the job. Yet in other facilities, the resident committee works cooperatively with the paid employee(s). On the whole, independent living communities offer some type of planned programming, but some facilities rely solely on the residents to initiate involvement, so you may find places where there is no formal social calendar.
A new trend is emerging among today’s independent living options; “niche communities” offer highly specified activities and events around a common interest (lifelong learning) or background (LGBT elders, Asian-Americans, RV enthusiasts).
- Lasell Village, a senior living community outside of Boston, Massachusetts, shares its campus with Lasell College.
- New Trend in Senior Homes: Shared Interests, Shared Space
Regardless of the arrangement, residents are not required to participate; many seniors who move to independent living are still active in the community/neighborhood they left behind; some still work or volunteer “off-campus.” Some residents remain active in their private living space, pursuing the hobbies they always enjoyed (reading, writing, drawing, watching movies, chatting and visiting with friends, knitting, cooking, crosswords, dinner parties, etc.) without ever leaving their apartment. You’ll find variations of all kinds at independent living communities across the country.
Help Wanted? Independent Living Care & Support Services
Living independently doesn’t mean you don’t need – or want – a little help now and then. Consequently, varying levels (and types) of assistance are available in most independent senior housing complexes.
Even though apartments are equipped with kitchens (whether kitchenette or full-service style), you don’t have to cook if the community you choose offers a meal plan. Formal restaurant-style service, self-service cafés, 24/7 snack bars, and other dining venues are typically part of the independent living landscape, so you can enjoy dinner with new friends, visiting family members, or with your spouse/partner when you don’t feel like cooking. Some communities offer all three meals, some only the main dinner meal, others a variation thereof. Perhaps a simple bowl of cereal in your apartment kitchen is all you need for breakfast, but you’d love a sandwich or salad at the café for lunch and a three-course meal for dinner. Choose the meal plan that works best for you – that’s what most retirement communities offer.
There might be a laundry facility on the floor, or a washer/dryer unit in your apartment. Even so, independent living providers may offer laundry/linen services for an added charge. Some may partner with a local dry cleaning service for in-house pick-up/drop-off. Also available at some communities: housekeeping services, also for an added charge. (In some cases, these services may be bundled into the total cost; more to come on payment options below.)
Forget about mowing the lawn or fixing a leaky faucet: a majority of communities have a full staff complement charged with maintaining the interior/exterior grounds and facilities. If you’re a green thumb-type, many independent living campuses offer residents their own garden space outside the apartment or shared/community garden space somewhere on the premises.
Health Care Services
If the independent living facility you choose is part of a CCRC (continuing care – other levels of care like assisted living or skilled nursing share the same campus), you may have access to health care services that are not generally offered in independent living. However, there are some communities that provide a limited number of nursing/medical services, perhaps in a clinic or wellness center where nurses, physicians, therapists, or other health care professionals may be available on an appointment/hourly basis on certain days of the week. Ancillary services, such as those provided by social workers or chaplains, for example, may also be available on some independent living campuses.
Should you move in with a spouse/partner who requires care (or needs it later, after making the transition), you can bring in home care (medical or non-medical) to your apartment just as you would do at your prior residence.
Safety & Security Services
You’ll also find security and alert systems in most independent senior living facilities. Depending on the size of the complex, the community may even employ security personnel to patrol the grounds, sign in guests at the main entrance, and provide support for 911 emergency calls/dispatches to the property. Some communities integrate alert systems (such as Lifeline) to ensure the safety and well-being of residents. In certain facilities, residents may be required to push their alert button as soon as they’re “up and about”; a report will be sent to facility staff (in most cases, the security personnel) alerting them about residents who did not check in and prompting a phone call or face-to-face visit.
How to Pay for Independent Living
Now that you’ve read about all the exciting amenities and features that independent living boasts, the big question comes down to the dollars: How will you pay for it?
Medicare does NOT cover the cost of independent living care (although some home care services administered in an independent living setting may be covered). Typically, this senior housing option is private pay/out-of-pocket only. However, there are several alternatives; find out more about each one at the links below:
- Long Term Care Insurance
- Social Security
- Supplemental Security income
- Financial Assistance (via LIHEAP, SNAP, and other government programs)
- Veterans Benefits
Most independent living fees are charged on a monthly basis after an entrance fee/deposit has been paid before/upon move-in (each facility does this differently). Depending on where you live, what size apartment you choose, and what services you select, the average monthly cost ranges anywhere from $800/month to $5500/month, according to GeriCareFinder.com. It’s also important to verify what services are bundled into the monthly rent charge and what is charged a la carte after you sign on the dotted line.
Additional resources that may be helpful in answering the all-important money question:
For detailed information on affordable senior housing/other options for low-income seniors, check out the senior section on HUD.gov.
Tips for Touring/Choosing an Independent Living Community
All things considered, do you think independent living is right for you or a senior friend/family member?
If so, let the search begin.
- Find independent living communities in your area here at our site.
- Narrow down the options with these tips for choosing an independent living community.
- Make in-person visits (several of them, if you must) before settling on your first choice; refer to our advice on touring the communities you have in mind.
- Be sure to ask questions when touring the campus or speaking with admissions staff over the phone. This article offers advice accordingly: 5 Critical Questions to Ask When Choosing an Independent Living Community.
As always, we welcome your suggestions for additional recommended resources that may help those considering independent living for themselves or a loved one. Share them below!