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 freestanding homes. In general, the housing is friendlier to older adults, often being more compact, with easier navigation and assistance in yard maintenance (if there is a yard). You may also hear the terms retirement communities, retirement homes, senior housing, and senior apartments applied to independent living.
Differences between independent living and other senior housing
The key difference between independent living and other housing options is the level of assistance offered for daily living activities. Just as with regular housing, you can hire in-home help to assist you in an independent living facility. However, if you or a 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. To learn more, read Understanding Senior Housing Options.
Types of independent living facilities
There are many types of independent living facilities, from apartment complexes to separate houses. They come in a range of costs, including subsidized housing for low income older adults. Continuing care retirement facilities provide independent living, as well as other housing with more services at the same facility.
- Subsidized senior housing. In the U.S., there are senior housing complexes, subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for low-income seniors. Keep in mind that depending on the area, waiting lists can take years, so it’s a good idea to plan well in advance for this option.
- Senior apartments. Senior apartments are apartment complexes restricted by age, usually 55 and older. Rent may include community services such as recreational programs, transportation services, and meals served in a communal dining room.
- Retirement communities. Retirement communities are groups of housing units for those aged 55 and older. These housing units can be single-family homes, duplexes, mobile homes, townhouses, or condominiums. If you decide to buy a unit, additional monthly fees may cover services such as outside maintenance, recreation centers, or clubhouses.
- Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs). CCRCs offer service and housing packages that allow access to independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing facilities in one community. If residents begin to need help with activities of daily living, for example, they can transfer to an assisted living or skilled nursing facility on the same site.
Thinking about giving up the familiar for a new living arrangement is a big decision. Here are some considerations to assist you in the process:
Start by considering emotional roadblocks
- You may be excited to plan this new phase of your life. However, it can also be difficult emotionally to consider a move.
- You may be reluctant to leave a home filled with memories, even if the home is difficult to maintain or just feels too big.
- It may be getting harder and harder to get out and meet up with friends, but it may feel easier to just accept that as part of getting older.
- Realize that some anxiety and stress is normal in considering such a big decision.
- The more information you have, the easier it is to make informed choices about the future.
- If the anxiety feels too overwhelming, reach out for help. Talk to family, friends, or your health care professional. Try Helpguide’s free Emotional Self-Help Toolkit for more help managing your emotions.
Ease of keeping up your current home
Maintaining a home may be a longstanding source of pride for you, but it can also become a burden as you age. Perhaps your home has a large yard which requires constant maintenance, or maybe it’s becoming more and more difficult to clean those extra rooms that are rarely used. If your home is difficult to access, such as on a steep hill or up several flights of stairs, it may be harder and harder for you to leave your home as often you’d like, leading to more isolation.
Sometimes these challenges can be partially remedied by hiring outside help, remodeling parts of your home, or by other family members lending assistance. However, it’s worthwhile to take a look at your current living situation and see if an alternative to remaining at home may give you more freedom and flexibility in the long run.
Transportation is a key issue. You may live in an area where you must drive to attend social activities, visit friends, and shop. If you find yourself less comfortable with driving, you may find yourself relying more and more on family and friends to get around. It may be harder to visit others, go to activities you enjoy, or keep doctors’ appointments. Independent living usually offers opportunities to socialize on-site with peers and may also offer some transportation options to outside activities.
Are you finding it harder and harder to connect with others? Maybe you have a difficult time getting out of the house, perhaps due to trouble driving or increased mobility issues. Neighbors may be busy with other work and family commitments, or the neighborhood may not be easy to get around. While the phone and computer can help, you need human connection as well. The more isolated you are, the greater your risk for depression and other mental health problems. Independent living facilities can give you a built-in social network of peers, while some even provide structured activities such as a recreation center, clubhouse, or field trips.
The health of you or your spouse
Take a look at your current state of health. While no one can predict the future with certainty, if you have a health condition that makes it difficult to stay active and will most likely worsen with time, it’s good to consider your options carefully. It’s also important to consider the health of your spouse if you are married. Are you already helping your spouse with daily activities? If you are shouldering a significant amount of care already, moving to a facility where some of the burden can be lifted could help both of you stay independent longer.
What you need from independent living depends on your own unique situation. Where would you be most comfortable? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
It’s all about the people
No matter what type of independent living facility you consider, you want to make sure you connect with peers and feel comfortable in the community. When you visit the area, talk with some of the residents. Are they people you’d like to know better? Are some of your favorite hobbies or activities available? Are support services timely, with a staff that's friendly and accessible?
Size and location of community
There is no set size for an independent living community, so it’s really your preference. Do you prefer a smaller size community, or a busier place with more people and opportunities for socialization? Are you comfortable with more compact apartment-style living, or is having a detached home with easy access the ultimate goal? Be sure to visit several communities to get a sense of what is comfortable to you.
Location is another consideration. Some popular retirement/independent living areas are in warmer states such as Arizona, California, and Florida. However, consider carefully if you are prepared to move a considerable distance. It does mean developing a new support network if you don’t have family and friends close by, as well as finding new medical care.
Take a look at how accessible the community is, both inside and outside. Do you feel safe coming and going at different hours of the day? Are facilities outside of the community within walking distance, or do you need transportation like a car or cart to get around? How easy is it to get to services such as a common dining hall or recreation center?
In your potential housing unit, get a feel for future adaptability. Are there any stairs inside the unit or outside? Can ramps be added if necessary? Check to see if adaptive devices like grab bars can be easily installed in bathrooms.
Community Resources and Support
With so much variation in services, think about which are most important to you in an independent living facility. Also, consider services that you may find useful in the future. For example, if you value exercise, consider a community with an exercise area, pool, or fitness classes. You may like cooking your meals now but want the option for communal meals in the future. Prioritizing the services you want also helps you budget appropriately, since the more services a community offers, the higher the cost may be.
There are a range of costs associated with independent living, ranging from subsidized housing for low-income seniors to comprehensive service facilities with other options for long-term care. As you consider independent living, prepare a budget to estimate costs you feel comfortable with, taking into account other considerations such as medical bills. There are several websites in the Resources section below that offer examples on preparing a budget and making the decision that’s right for you.
- If you are considering subsidized housing, remember that waiting lists can be quite long, often several years. You may want to begin the process as soon as possible.
- When considering costs, make sure you are able to comfortably handle both the initial investment and monthly fees. These could range from homeowners association fees to fees you pay for services on site. How many services are included, and how much does it cost to add on services if you need them later?
- If you or your spouse are relatively healthy now, but anticipate significant health problems down the line, you may want to consider a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). These facilities offer a spectrum of care from independent living to nursing home care at the same site and normally require a one-time entrance fee and monthly service fees thereafter.
Emotional Self-Help Toolkit Program
Resources & References
Helpguide’s Yellow Pages
Resources for public assistance, social services, and other health and human services.
Overviews of independent living facilities
55+ Communities Checklist – Comprehensive checklist of questions to ask yourself and the retirement community management team before making your decision. (CarePathways.com)
Relocating from Home – Provides more information on different independent living options, including senior apartments, retirement communities and continuing care retirement communities. Also provides information on other long term care options for consideration. (SeniorResource.com)
Independent Living and Retirement Communities – Six basic keys to evaluate whether independent living is the best choice for you, and a description of typical services and costs. (Seniorhousingnet.com)
Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) – Learn about what these facilities have to offer, questions to ask and how to evaluate whether CCRC’s may be a good choice for you. (Mass.gov Elder Affairs)
Budget concerns for independent living facilities
Key to Choice (PDF) – A guide to help you assess your lifestyle needs and evaluate the many housing and service options available to seniors. Includes samples of budgets and evaluations. (The Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging)
Senior Citizens Homes & Communities – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official site for senior housing information includes many links for details about various types of housing. (HUD.gov).