Assisted living is a long-term senior care option for people who need help with activities of daily living but don’t need a skilled nurse around the clock. These communities aim to balance a resident’s independence with personal care assistance, simple health services, 24-hour security, and group leisure activities. These communities also offer accommodations such as housekeeping, laundry, and meals.
Commonly seen as an alternative to nursing homes, assisted living communities are actually a completely different type of living environment. For those who don’t need the 24/7 medical attention of nursing homes, assisted living communities provide care, community, and much-needed safety.
Whether you are researching the best assisted living communities for yourself or a loved one, navigating your options can be a daunting task. To help, I created this guide. Here you will find an overview of assisted living: how it works, what is provided, and how to find the best home for your needs.
Assisted living facilities come in many different forms. Some cater to specific cultural groups; however, the majority of facilities have a sliding scale of care offered.
The goal of assisted living is for residents to maintain as much independence as possible while getting help in the areas they need it. For example, one of my former caregiving clients was struggling to stay healthy because it was difficult for him to continue cooking nutritious meals. He also missed interacting with people in his day-to-day life. Ultimately, he chose an assisted living facility with prepared meals and a shared dining space, which allowed him to eat and mingle with others.
If you need help managing medications and struggle to bathe — but function well otherwise — an assisted living facility would allow you to live quite normally. You’d simply add a couple of interactions to your week: someone who comes by to remind you to take your medications, and someone else who helps you bathe.
Do I Qualify for Assisted Living?
You or you loved one qualifies for assisted living if they meet the following criteria:
Assistance: Unlike nursing homes, assisted living facilities provide what are considered nonmedical services such as dressing and bathing, making one of these communities a good fit for people who need help with these daily tasks.
Mobility: Those who wish to live in assisted living communities should be able to get around with minimal help, meaning they can either walk or use a wheelchair or scooter independently.
Self-Efficacy: Since assisted living facilities don’t provide around-the-clock care, residents need to be comfortable living alone in an apartment. With that said, help is naturally available when they need it.
Health Stability: Potential residents should have no need for ongoing medical attention. If they have a chronic condition such as diabetes or arthritis, they should be able to manage it on their own.
What Is the Average Length of Stay in Assisted Living?
According to the AARP, the average length of stay in an assisted living facility is about 2 1/2 to three years. The most common reasons for leaving an assisted living community are declining health and the need for a higher level of care.
What Does Assisted Living Provide?
You’ll often see a few levels of care offered at assisted living residences, and those with more care needs typically charge a higher monthly rate. Although services and amenities are different and based on each facility, below is a list of the most common services:
Assistance with personal care (bathing, dressing, eating)
Three cooked meals a day
Help with medication administration
Health monitoring and management (not skilled nursing)
While assisted living communities do not provide medical care — as do nursing homes — they will certainly help residents who need assistance using the bathroom. This includes both bathing and toileting.
Does Assisted Living Include Meals?
While some facilities charge extra for different types of meal services, most communities will include three cooked meals per day as part of your base price.
Pro Tip: Remember to always ask communities you’re interested in for their specific list of available services. These will also help make it easier to compare communities side by side when it comes time to make a decision.
In any given assisted living community, you may find private studio, one-bedroom, and dorm-style apartments. Most often, these single-unit spaces include private restrooms and a small area for cooking or food storage. You can even find locations that include full-sized kitchens. Sometimes these home-like residences come fully furnished. Others are unfurnished, allowing you to make your space your own.
Can a Spouse Live in Assisted Living?
Since most assisted living communities have a variety of room sizes, couples are generally welcome to move in together. In my experience, when spouses transition together to this type of community, they find the experience much more comfortable and enjoyable.
Are Pets Allowed in Assisted Living Facilities?
Most assisted living communities allow residents to have pets. Just like any apartment building, however, there are likely rules regarding pet ownership. Exotic animals such as reptiles and birds might not be allowed, and dogs of a certain breed or size might be restricted. Be sure to ask the facility about their specific rules regarding pets, and also check if they charge additional pet rent.
Can You Drink Alcohol in Assisted Living?
Unlike pets, which are allowed almost universally, the rules regarding alcohol in assisted living vary widely. Some communities offer alcohol with meals, whereas others only allow residents to consume it with written approval from a doctor. If alcohol consumption is a regular part of your life, be sure to ask a representative from a prospective community about their drinking policies.
Assisted Living Versus Nursing Homes
Although your loved one may receive some help from on-site staff with bathing or medications, life at an assisted living center is much different than living in a nursing home. Still, I find that people are often unaware of the differences in these senior housing options. Here are some of the main differences:
Medical Care: The primary difference between nursing homes and assisted living is that assisted living strives to provide a truly home-like experience, while nursing homes exist to provide higher levels of medical care, requiring a more clinical setting. On average, a resident of assisted living receives about 12 minutes of nursing care and about two hours of personal care per day. The average nursing home resident receives between 1.2 and 2.7 hours of skilled nursing care each day. While assisted living facilities may help you with medication, nursing homes provide many medical services. Licensed physicians supervise each patient’s care, skilled nurses are present 24/7, and other services like physical, occupational, and speech therapy are also common.
Expenses: In most states, nursing homes commonly cost more than assisted living, as around-the-clock nursing is required. The cost difference can be quite significant, reaching as high as several thousand dollars per month in certain states.
Mobility: Assisted living residents usually maintain some level of mobility, while nursing home patients are frequently bedridden. If a person has severe mobility limitations, an assisted living facility likely won’t admit them.
Rooms vs. Apartments: Assisted living facilities provide one-bedroom or studio apartments. Nursing homes offer single or semi-private rooms without kitchens or separate living spaces.
Safety: Nursing homes have trained medical staff available at all hours, whereas these professionals usually visit assisted living facilities during certain hours. The level of care is lower in assisted living facilities since they generally have healthier residents.
When Is It Time for Assisted Living?
Whether you’re an older adult or a loved one, choosing to move from the comfort of your home to an assisted living facility is not a decision that’s made lightly. Still, if aging in place is not an option, most people would prefer to live in an assisted living facility, due to the increased levels of independence. The list below will provide you with an idea of whether or not assisted living might be right for you or your loved one.
It’s always best to have a conversation about assisted living before your loved one needs to move. Facilities often have wait-lists, so if you wait until there’s a crisis, such as a fall or other health emergency, your options will likely be more limited.
If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you should set aside some time to discuss assisted living with your loved one.
Are you or your loved one experiencing more frequent accidents, such as falls or small house fires? As our bodies age, moving around becomes more difficult, and serious falls become more common. Many of my clients often leave appliances on such as the oven, leading to potentially hazardous fires.
Have household tasks, such as laundry and dishes, become exceedingly difficult? Do you notice your loved one leaving chores undone that they would normally do?
Has caring for your loved one become detrimental to your own health/quality of life? Does providing adequate care feel like a task beyond your capabilities, either in terms of time or specialized skills? Caregiver burnout is when you are emotionally or physically fatigued, leading to exhaustion and illness.
Are sundowning incidents becoming more intense and difficult to handle? Do you often fear for your or your loved one’s safety?
Has your loved one lost weight because of a lack of food or gained weight from too much fast food? Are they eating the same thing every day? Does their blood work point to malnutrition?
Has your loved one been pulled over for erratic driving? Are there dents in their car or garage door? Do they go on long walks and forget how to get home?
Do they sometimes have accidents because it takes too long to get to the toilet? Is it becoming difficult or dangerous for them to bathe themselves?
Does your loved one see people regularly? Do they keep in touch with friends and family members? Do they leave the house regularly for any activities or hobbies?
How to Research Assisted Living Facilities
Once you decide to move a loved one into assisted living, your next task is to find your ideal community. Just like searching for a home or apartment, this process can feel quite overwhelming if you don’t have a plan. One way I plan is by making a list. Try this list I use to help my caregiving clients find assisted living facilities.
Factors to Consider When Choosing an Assisted Living Community
The distance of the facility from loved ones (walking and driving)
The distance from emergency medical care/hospital
Range of services available with the community (housekeeping, laundry, bathing, etc.)
Services included in the base plan
Types of food offered for meals
Religious services and affiliations
Social and recreational activities offered
Levels and types of training staff members receive
Parking and transportation
Staff attitude and demeanor
Recent complaints filed against the community with the local Better Business Bureau
Unique aspects about the community, such as an on-site Starbucks
Results of state or federal inspections
Once you’ve narrowed your search down to a few facilities of interest, visit them — ideally more than once. Don’t be afraid to show up without a scheduled visit. While you’re there, make sure to interview current residents about the best aspects of assisted living and ask the staff the following questions:
How do payments work?
How, when, and by whom are care needs evaluated? If my needs change, will my monthly cost increase?
Is there a deposit? If so, is it refundable?
How often do they ask residents to leave? What are the criteria for requiring a resident to move to a higher level of care?
Pro Tip: During your move, make sure you keep any critical medication on your person so it doesn’t get lost.
Transitioning to Assisted Living
Once your loved one arrives at their new home, a facility representative will greet you and show you around. If you haven’t already received a Resident’s Bill of Rights and a copy of your contract, make sure you get them now.
Before moving out:
Take time to say goodbye. A home is a big part of your loved one’s life. Recognize that they may go through a mourning period, and that’s okay. For my clients, I like to plan a dinner with family members and friends. This is a great way to honor one’s space and create a final positive memory.
Plan future visits. Leaving one’s home is scary, regardless of age. Many older adults often feel like they’ll be abandoned in care facilities. To assuage these fears, start making plans with them. Perhaps set aside a day or two for regular visits. You could even plan for regular activities out of the center such as trips to a house of worship.
When you get there:
Make it look like home. Decorate their new place with personal items that make their apartment feel special. Photo albums and family heirlooms are a great way to accomplish this.
Get involved. Ask an employee for a list of activities in the assisted living facility, and figure out which ones will interest your loved one. Most places will offer cultural, exercise, culinary, and craft clubs that meet regularly. Many of these groups even allow guests, so you could join in.
Dine with other residents. Living in assisted living can often be defined by the other residents. To help your loved one get adjusted, consider accompanying them to a meal to help them branch out.
When to Move From Assisted Living to a Nursing Home
Assisted living serves the needs of older adults only to a certain extent. At some point, depending on the individual’s needs and the capabilities and rules of the assisted living community, certain individuals may need a higher level of care than the facility can provide.
Suppose the assisted living community has not required a move. In that case, you may also decide it’s time for your loved one to move from assisted living to a nursing facility, memory care community, or smaller adult care home for a number of reasons. Memory care may be more appropriate if your loved one is struggling with a form of dementia, wandering, or exit-seeking. Nursing homes often have on-site physicians who can be more attentive to your loved one’s complex medical needs.
Can Residents Periodically Leave Assisted Living?
One of the best parts of assisted living is the relative amount of freedoms entailed. In most facilities, residents may come and go as often as they please, provided the resident is healthy enough to travel, and they have a loved one to give advance notice to the facility and provide proper support.
Can Assisted Living Kick Out Residents?
Assisted living facilities can legally evict a resident, even if that person is suffering from a debilitating illness and is unable to properly care for themselves. While nursing homes must abide by certain laws that restrict evictions, assisted living policies are set on a state-by-state basis.
Generally, a facility can kick out a resident if they feel the needs of said resident exceed what can be provided by the facility. In my experience, I have seen residents evicted due to worsening Alzheimer’s that makes residents difficult to keep safe.
It’s certainly a lifestyle change and often costly, but for older adults who are somewhat independent with just a handful of extra care needs, assisted living may just be the best solution. I’m not a huge fan of the price tag. However, it’s well worth considering, given the funding and finance options we discussed, and the expanse of possibilities available for older adults, such as fitness classes and social events. Plus, I’ve witnessed a significant reduction in stress in both older adults and caregivers when undertaking such a move. Thereby, I’m convinced assisted living is worth a second look for families trying to decide on their next best step.
Family members are almost always allowed as overnight guests at assisted living communities. After all, it is the resident’s apartment. Even communities that lock their doors at night will often buzz in family members who want to stay with loved ones but arrive after regular visiting hours.
Some assisted living apartments are furnished. Others are not. It depends on the facility. Even in furnished apartments, residents are encouraged to bring in some personal items to help make the place their own.
While requirements for assisted living residence vary, most communities insist residents be at least 60 years of age. Certain facilities have other rules such as “residents must be mobile enough to escape on their own or with little aid in the event of an emergency.”
Amie has been writing about senior care products and services for the last decade. She is particularly passionate about new technologies that help improve the quality of life for seniors and their families. Seeing her parents and grandparents age made Amie ask herself, “Would this be good enough for my loved ones?” In her spare time, Amie enjoys outdoor adventures and spontaneous road trips. Learn more about Amie here