Table of Contents
- Who resides in independent living
- Who may not be a good fit
- Why choose independent living
- Home care services for IADLs
- Personal care services for ADLs
- Choosing a community
Independent living is a senior living option that provides housing and services in a low-maintenance community setting for older adults who are active, healthy, and able to live safely on their own. With numerous amenities, activities, and dining options and the freedom to come and go or participate in whatever you choose, residing at these communities may feel a bit like living on a college campus for seniors.
Who resides in independent living
In independent living for seniors, residents often are limited to adults age 55+, but some communities set higher thresholds such as age 60, 62, or 65. Spouses under the age limit are typically allowed to live there with an age-qualified spouse. The average age at any specific independent living community may vary from mid-70’s to mid-80’s, and most have significantly more women than men, as women tend to live longer.
Who may not be a good fit
People who need help with Activities of Daily Living (e.g. bathing, dressing, transfers) or medical care may not be a good fit for independent living for seniors. Residents who are no longer fully independent and need this type of assistance sometimes remain in independent living, however, by hiring third-party home care or home health care providers, respectively, to come perform select services.
Why choose independent living
Seniors move into independent living communities when they want any or all of the following:
- Low-maintenance lifestyle: At these communities, residents perform relatively minimal housekeeping and meal preparation, as well as no home maintenance and repairs. This not only reduces the chance of physical injury, but also frees up time that they can spend on other enriching activities.
- Social opportunities: Residents live in an all-inclusive community with peers who are at a similar stage in life. The built-in social opportunities make it easier for seniors to stay connected to people and form new friendships, which helps them stay healthy – physically, emotionally, and cognitively.
- Safety and security: These communities have staff onsite 24×7, who not only help to keep the community secure, but also can help residents in case of emergency, such as severe weather or power outages.
- Accessibility: Designed for seniors, these communities ensure people can get around without having to walk up and down steep inclines or stairs. They also tend to have home modifications such as open floor plans, wider hallways with handrails, and supportive home features like bathroom grab bars, walk-in showers with built-in seats, and easy-to-grasp door and faucet levers.
- Convenience: Communities may have amenities ranging from a hair salon to a movie theater to a general convenience store – and activities ranging from game nights to group exercise classes to educational seminars. As a result, residents don’t have to go far or spend a lot of time driving around during the course of their days.
- Future-proofing: Some seniors may move into independent living even though they don’t feel the need for the benefits above just yet. Instead, they want to be prepared for the future and have this additional support available in the event that they need it.
Independent living communities for seniors vary widely in the types of housing they provide. They may be multi-story buildings with units ranging from studios to two- or three-bedroom apartments. Or they could encompass multi-level townhouses. Or they may be campuses of single-family homes.
Features you can expect in your own unit include:
- Accessibility: While independent living communities are not required to be wheelchair-accessible, the units often have bathroom grab bars, walk-in showers, and other modifications that make a home more senior-friendly.
- Safety: In addition to standard safety devices such as smoke alarms and fire sprinklers, emergency pull cords also may be available in the unit. These are most commonly in the bathroom, where accidents are most likely to occur, and may also be in the bedroom.
- Kitchen: Even though independent living provides dining services, each unit usually has its own kitchen so residents can prepare their own food when desired. Some places offer full-size kitchens with stovetops, ovens, dishwashers, and microwaves, while others may provide only a small kitchenette with a sink and mini-fridge. You can typically bring in your own small appliances, if desired.
- Laundry: All independent living communities provide some type of laundry facilities. This may be a washer/dryer or a washer/dryer hookup inside each unit, or shared laundry rooms spread throughout the community, or both. Shared laundry rooms typically are free to use, not coin-operated, and some even provide complimentary laundry detergent.
- Parking: Communities typically have parking lots for the residents who still drive. Some also have assigned carport spaces, while others may have enclosed garages.
- Storage: Each unit will have a few closets for storage, but space is typically limited compared to traditional homes. People often need to downsize before moving in. Some communities offer small storage units or cages elsewhere in the building. Others allow private garages to be used for storage as needed. Yet others allow residents to forgo having a washer/dryer inside their unit so they can use that space as a storage closet instead.
- Unfurnished: Housing is provided without furniture, so that residents can bring their own furniture and belongings to make it feel more familiar and like their own home.
- Customization: Higher-end communities let you customize your unit and choose your preferred flooring, countertops, and paint color before you move in. Older communities in particular may be gradually upgrading their buildings unit by unit, and offer new residents their choice of remodeling options when they refresh (or “flip” or “turn”) the unit after the previous resident moves out.
In the shared areas of an independent living community, you’ll be able to take advantage of the following:
- Accessibility: Communities that are designed from the ground up for seniors are easier to navigate. They may be more compact, provide elevators, and have wider hallways lined with handrails for support and benches for resting.
- Dining room: The central common area is the dining room, where residents gather for communal meals up to three times a day. Some communities also have a separate small dining room that residents can reserve for private events with their family and friends. A few also have communal kitchens that residents may use to prepare meals that require more appliances, equipment, or space than is available in their own kitchenettes.
- Activity rooms: Most places will have a general activity room or clubhouse where larger events are hosted, along with a few smaller rooms or lounge areas for informal resident gatherings. They also may have more specialized activity rooms, such as a library, computer room, movie theater, arts and crafts room, or chapel.
- Fitness room: To help seniors stay healthy, just about all communities have an exercise room or fitness center, which may offer equipment such as treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, or weights. Some places also have outdoor or indoor pools, hot tubs, and saunas.
- Outdoor spaces: Getting fresh air and outdoor exercise also boosts health, so many communities have outdoor gardens, patios, courtyards, and walking paths. Some also have grilling areas, tennis courts, and even golf courses with carts to use to get around the community.
- Onsite amenities: For greater convenience, some communities dedicate rooms for amenities that typically require making a special trip offsite. These may include a beauty salon, convenience store, bank, and even a guest suite for visiting family and friends.
Home care services for IADLs
Independent living services vary from community to community, but they usually include some level of help for Instrumental Activities of Daily Living, such as dining services, housekeeping, transportation, activities, 24×7 staffing, home maintenance and repair, and utilities.
The styles of dining services available range widely across communities. Often, the dining room provides three meals a day at fixed times, which tend toward earlier senior-friendly hours. The meals may be provided through restaurant-style table service, where residents can remain comfortably seated throughout the meal, or through self-service cafeteria-style buffets. A few dining rooms offer all-day service for greater convenience. At communities with ample dining room staff or where the dining staff reside onsite, it’s easier to provide meals at residents’ preferred times; at other communities, the three meals of the day may get compressed into a shorter total time period in order to fit with staff availability.
Restaurant menus vary each day, usually with a couple options to choose from. Some communities also have a supplementary everyday menu that offers popular standards if you aren’t keen on that day’s menu choices. Most communities are mindful of the need for seniors to eat healthfully, and offer low-salt or sugar-free choices.
While residents benefit from dining with others, they also are welcome to bring their meals back to their rooms in takeout containers. Most communities are happy to pack up your meal if you call in your takeout request in advance; some let you pick up the takeout meal at the start of the mealtime, while others only make them ready after mealtime is over. Some communities also even provide unlimited complimentary room service delivery, though most only do so when residents are feeling under the weather.
Some communities supplement their restaurants with a bistro or cafe that provides more casual counter service throughout the day. Many have a 24×7 grab-and-go snack bar with fruit, baked goods, beverages, or even cold sandwiches.
Light housekeeping of your unit is included, often on a biweekly basis, but sometimes on a weekly basis. This would include dusting, vacuuming, cleaning counters, and dumping the trash, but not washing personal dishes or putting away your personal belongings. Some communities offer more frequent trash service by asking residents to put their trash cans outside their apartment doors at night.
In addition to the self-service laundry facilities described in the previous section, some communities also may include laundry service, though this is not as common in independent living for seniors. At the most basic level, some places will change your bed linens, but require you to provide and wash them. Others may provide, wash, and change bed linens for you. Some locations wash your personal laundry as well, sometimes in limited quantities. Keep in mind that some may wash each resident’s laundry separately, while others may have a policy of combining multiple residents’ laundry all together.
Independent living communities generally have a van or shuttle for taking residents to other locations on a complimentary basis, often limited to weekdays during daytime hours. Destinations may be limited to a 10 to 15 mile radius from the community, but some communities will drive beyond that for an extra surcharge.
Certain days of the week may be reserved for regularly scheduled group trips to grocery stores or group social activities, while other days of the week are dedicated to taking residents to their personal medical appointments. A few communities also will drive residents to and from personal errands, such as to the bank or post office. Fewer yet will take residents for social outings, such as to visit a friend. Personal trips often need to be booked a couple days in advance and are subject to vehicle availability.
Keep in mind that you can always supplement the in-house service with outside transportation services for seniors.
Communities organize a full calendar of social, recreational, educational, and fitness activities to help their residents build friendships and stay active and engaged. These include movie nights, games, group exercise classes, arts and crafts lessons, holiday-themed celebrations, cultural events, continuing education on topics of interest to seniors, book clubs, and more – all held conveniently onsite. Occasional outings to restaurants or local attractions may be planned as well. Many community activity directors welcome suggestions from residents on the types of activities they would enjoy, which can help make the activities even more relevant to you.
To help ensure residents’ safety, someone on the staff will be available onsite around the clock. Some properties even have live-in managers who can get to know each resident personally. In the event of severe weather or power outages, staff can help to guide residents safely.
For further security, many communities provide each resident with a personal emergency pendant that lets them alert the staff if they need help. While the staff does not assist with medical emergencies, they can call emergency medical services (EMS) for you and stay with you until help arrives.
To help residents with non-emergency needs, some communities even provide a concierge during regular business hours.
Home maintenance and repairs
All maintenance and repairs are included – for each resident’s unit, the common areas, and the external spaces. If you want additional grab bars or shelving installed in your own unit, some communities will handle that for you if you pay for materials and labor. If you’re the type that will miss gardening, note that some communities have resident-led gardening clubs that greatly improve the property.
Independent living communities provide full home utilities, so residents don’t need to spend time and effort requesting, managing, and paying for these separate services. These generally include water, electricity, gas, trash, and sewage.
Cable and internet access may be included for each home, or may be provided in common areas only. If the community provides each resident with internet access, it could be a dedicated network for each person, or a shared network across multiple residents, in which case you should use a virtual private network (VPN) for security. Personal phone service is not included.
A few of the larger independent living chains offer a resident travel program, where residents can stay in the guest suite at a sister community if it’s available – usually for up to a week at no charge. While visiting these communities, they live comfortably, making use of the services they are accustomed to having at home, while surrounded by peers and potential new friends.
Personal care services for ADLs
Unlike assisted living, independent living for seniors does not include in-house personal care for Activities of Daily Living. Many communities, however, partner with an external home care agency that provides and charges for these services themselves. Because the home care agency can assist multiple customers in one location, they can book services more flexibly in shorter time increments, such as a 15-minute minimum, rather than a 4-hour minimum, as would typically be required at a private home.
This article, Independent Living For Seniors: A Comprehensive Guide, has been written and published by Senior Wing.
Many independent living communities operate on a rental basis, while some require that you purchase the home. Your own cost will depend on a combination of the following factors:
- Community: Location, amenities, services, overall condition and age
- Housing unit:
- Square footage
- Number of bedrooms and bathrooms
- Other features (e.g. washer/dryer, patio, balcony, garage, etc.)
- How recently the unit was remodeled
- The location within the community (e.g. ground floor, shorter walks to the dining room, and nicer views command higher prices)
Typically, you will pay:
- A base monthly fee that is nearly all-inclusive
- Plus additional monthly fees if you want certain expanded services and amenities
- Plus one-time upfront fees as a new resident
Base monthly costs
Costs vary drastically across independent living communities and may, at first, seem very high. Keep in mind, however, that these communities are nearly all-inclusive. Rather than comparing independent living directly against a traditional apartment rental or home mortgage, also include what you pay for utilities, food, home security, housekeeping, landscaping, and transportation, as applicable.
Extra monthly costs
Independent living for seniors is nearly all-inclusive because some communities do place limits on certain services or exclude a few less critical amenities to keep costs manageable for more residents. Here are the services that are most likely to incur extra monthly costs:
- While some communities automatically include all three meals in their base prices, some only include breakfast and one other meal, while others only include breakfast. In the latter cases, you will incur extra costs if you sign up for the expanded meal plan.
- Other communities provide residents with monthly meal credits that they can “spend” flexibly on meals and snacks, even doubling up on some meals and skipping other meals, if desired. If you exceed this monthly allowance, then you’ll pay extra costs.
- Regardless of the type of dining plan, the additional meal costs at a senior community tend to be quite reasonable compared to prices at external restaurants.
- On the flip side, if you are away from the community for an extended period of time, some communities will even credit you for meals during that time. Some are willing to do this if you’re on vacation, while others only do this for hospital stays.
- Room service: Most communities charge extra for room service if the resident is not unwell. Pricing may be a flat fee for the month or based on the number of meals delivered.
- Housekeeping: A few communities may allow residents to opt into more frequent housekeeping for an extra fee. Again, the pricing tends to be very reasonable compared to hiring external housekeepers.
- Laundry: Most independent living communities do not provide full laundry services, but some may offer this service for an extra fee.
- Transportation: Pretty much all communities place limits on their complimentary transportation services. Some will drive you beyond their stated radius for a per-mile or flat surcharge for the trip.
- Garage or carport: This is generally not included in the base costs, and will incur an extra fee if needed.
- Storage unit: Some communities may offer a separate storage unit on a complimentary basis, but most will charge for this as an extra amenity.
- Second person: If two residents share one unit, the community typically charges a flat monthly second person fee in order to cover utilities and additional services. Sometimes this second person fee automatically includes meals, but sometimes there may be an additional meal fee on top of that, so be sure to ask.
- Pets: Communities that allow pets also charge a monthly fee for this.
- Special activities and outings: Select activities will require additional out-of-pocket fees, such as restaurant outings and local attraction admission tickets.
- Guests: When family and friends visit you, they will incur additional fees for any meals and guest suite stays, where applicable. Guest meal prices will be either comparable to or slightly higher than resident meal prices, and guest suite stays will be roughly comparable to your base housing rate and less expensive than hotels. Of course, these fees will be charged to your guests and not to you.
Any additional costs you incur at the onsite beauty salon or convenience store are typically charged to you immediately, and are not handled by the independent living community. Subscriptions for personal phone service (and Internet access, if applicable) also are your responsibility and not charged to you by the community.
One-time upfront fees
Independent living communities also may charge the following upfront fees when a resident moves in:
- Community fee: This is a one-time non-refundable fee charged for each unit (not for each person who lives in the unit). It may range from a few hundred dollars to the base costs for one month. The community uses these funds for cleaning and updating the unit before you move in, as well as general improvements to the community.
- Security deposit: Some communities also may charge a security deposit per unit, especially if they allow residents to modify the unit. These deposits may be partially or fully refundable, depending on the community policy. How much of that amount is actually refunded hinges upon the condition of your unit upon move-out.
- Background check fee: You may incur this charge per person once you commit to moving in.
- Transfer fee: If you move to a different unit within the same community, some places will charge you a transfer fee per unit.
Some communities are willing to offer discounts, especially if they have extra vacancies and are trying to meet end-of-month quotas. They may waive the community fee or provide the first month’s rent fee if you commit by the end of the calendar month. Also ask if they provide a veteran’s discount or large employer discount (for people who previously worked at certain companies), if relevant for you.
For independent living rentals, the lease agreement is often month-to-month from the very start, as they understand that seniors need flexibility and should not be locked into rigid 12-month contracts. A few communities may require a 3-month minimum stay for new residents, and then switch to month-to-month after that.
One caveat about month-to-month agreements is that the rent can increase unexpectedly; ask how often and when rent increases typically occur. Keep in mind that some services (e.g. dining, housekeeping) could be scaled back as well while the rent remains flat, with extra fees required for those who want to keep the previous level of service.
To terminate the agreement, communities ask for anywhere from 30 to 60 days notice. Some will waive early termination fees and allow the resident to move out earlier if the reason is to get a higher level of care for declining health, such as at assisted living or skilled nursing facilities.
People pay for senior independent living from their own savings, investments, home equity, or retirement and home rental income. Independent living is not covered by health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, or long-term insurance.
Choosing a community
If you’ve decided that independent living is right for you, follow these steps to find the specific communities that are best for you.
If you want to move into independent living for seniors, start looking at your options well in advance, if possible. There may be waitlists to get into some communities, or at least to get certain types of units.
Identify your priorities
Review the different housing features, amenities, and services described above in this article. Decide which aspects are most important to you – or perhaps classify all the items as high-medium-low, if that’s easier.
Search for communities
Put together a list of communities that are in your target location. Possible ways to accomplish this:
- Area Agency on Aging: Find your local agency using the Eldercare Locator. They will be able to help you get a list of independent living communities for seniors in the area.
- Google web search: Doing a regular Google search for “independent living [city]” will turn up some of the most well-known communities.
- Google Maps search: To get a more complete list of communities in a specific area, search on Google Maps. This can help you find some gems that have more available units because they haven’t put as much effort as other communities into promoting themselves online. Search for “retirement community” or “assisted living” (really) since Google Maps seems to classify independent living communities using a mix of those two terms.
Research the communities
Quickly review each community’s web site to rule out ones that definitely do not meet your needs. The web site will show high-level information such as the types of senior living the community offers, their minimum age limit, and sometimes even floor plans with current pricing.
Call the communities
Next, call the communities that still remain on your list. Talking to their agents, you’ll find out answers to most of your questions and get a good idea of whether the community meets your top needs.
Hold off on asking about pricing until the latter part of your call, as asking too early in the call tends to elicit a response of, “Let’s discuss pricing when you come in for a tour.” That also tends to happen more with expensive communities, which will give you some directional information on pricing.
Based on what you’ve learned from your calls, narrow down your list of communities. Call back and set up in-person tours. For scheduling purposes, estimate that each visit could take anywhere from about 45 to 90 minutes, depending on how interested you are, how many questions you ask, and how large the community is.
You also can try dropping by each community during their regular business hours, which involves less coordination work and gives you flexibility as you go from community to community. There are also benefits to doing unscheduled visits, which may provide a more genuine view of the community. The caveats are that you may be asked to wait a while or even come back later if no one is available to take you around, or if your desired units require advance notice in order to be shown, or if the community is having a COVID outbreak and not allowing visitors. (Speaking from experience!)
When you see each community:
- Housing: Of course, you’ll want to see the type of unit you’re considering to determine how well it meets your top needs. When you tour the common areas, note if there are residents actually using them, though this varies by time of day.
- Photos: After visiting a lot of communities, memories can become a blur. Take photos to help you remember what each place looked like, as long as you make sure not to include any residents in the photos for privacy reasons.
- Talk to residents: …but don’t just look at the facilities. Make sure you talk to residents and ask open-ended questions, even if you feel shy and introverted. You can gain a lot of unexpected information this way. See how they feel about living there. Reflect on how well you may fit in with them. Keep in mind that the residents you see may not be representative of everyone in the community, as some people may be out and about, while others may be in their rooms.
- Observe staff: See how the staff interacts with residents (and observe how the residents respond). Also pay attention to how the staff seems to feel about doing their jobs.
After the initial tours, you’ll likely rule out more communities. For those remaining on your short list, do a deeper dive visit. Don’t just look – make sure you experience what it would be like to actually live there.
- Meal: Time your next visit to overlap with lunch. Eat a meal there, not just to taste the food, but to experience the dining process from beginning to end. Talk to more residents.
- Activities: Review the activity calendar before scheduling the deep dive visit so you can participate in (or at the very least, watch) a group activity of interest to you. Note how the residents interact with each other, how active they are, and how happy they seem in general.
- Trial stay: Some communities offer you a free trial stay, usually from one to three nights. Even if they don’t, ask if you can pay to stay overnight. After you see what the community experience is like at each meal, in between meals, and in the evening, and at a wide range of activities, and after you interact with more residents, you will understand far better what it’s like to live there. You may be surprised at what you learn!
Once you’ve decided on your preferred independent living community and type of unit, the question will be whether any such units are available. If not, ask the community if they manage waitlists. Many do, and will call you when an appropriate unit opens up. These waitlists often require that you provide a check as a deposit, but it will not be cashed until you agree to take a specific unit. The check also can be returned to you if you decide you no longer want to be on the waitlist. Some communities do not manage waitlists, and ask that you call them each month to find out the latest availability.
Also find out how long you may remain on the waitlist, as a reality check. Some communities have at least a year-long waitlist, while others may be able to reach out to you with good news within a month. For communities that are unsure when you will get off the waitlist because their availability changes unpredictably, you can ballpark the wait time by asking:
For the type of unit you’re interested in:
- How many of these units exist in their community?
- How many people are on the waitlist now? (Keep in mind that current internal residents typically get priority over new residents for any units that open up, so more internal residents could potentially jump ahead of you in line while you are waiting.)
- How many times has this type of unit become available over the past 12 months?
They may not know the answer to the last question, but at least now you’ll know if you’re number 42 in line for one of two such units that exist on their property (don’t hold your breath) – or if you’re at the top of the waitlist for one of thirty such units that exist on their property (sounds promising).
Another strategy to get your desired unit in a community is to take any available unit, while getting on the waitlist for your desired unit. As an existing resident, you will have higher priority once your desired unit opens up. Keep in mind that you may incur a transfer fee when you move units.
If you’ve concluded that independent living for seniors does not quite meet your needs, then consider the following adjacent senior living options:
- Aging in place: If you value the services at independent living communities, but really want to stay in your own home, are relatively healthy and independent, and already have a strong support network in your neighborhood, then aging in place may work for you. You can make home modifications, use local transportation services, sign up for home care services, and use safety devices for seniors.
- Active adult: If you are fully active and independent, you may not value the onsite dining, housekeeping, transportation, and activities provided by independent living communities. At an active adult community, you wouldn’t have to pay for those services, yet you’d still benefit from exterior home maintenance and resort-style amenities to enrich your life and health.
- Independent living plus home care: If you like independent living, but just need more support for ADLs, then the solution may be to hire home care providers. They can come on a scheduled basis to help with bathing, dressing, laundry, medication reminders, and pet care.
- Assisted living: If you need:
- More accessible housing to accommodate large mobility aids
- Or expanded home care services such as more frequent housekeeping, full laundry services, and custom doctor-prescribed meals
- Or on-demand assistance with transfers and toileting
…then assisted living will be a better fit and more economical than independent living for seniors supplemented with third-party home care services. At the same time, note that assisted living will scale back on amenities that are meant for more active adults.
- Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs): If you want to move into independent living, but are uncertain about the needs of you or your partner possibly increasing in the future, then a CCRC may be the solution. You can move into the independent living section, yet rest assured that assisted living and skilled nursing are easily accessible if ever needed. You also will have transfer priority over external residents. Also consider communities that are not full CCRCs but combine independent living and assisted living in a single place.
- Intentional communities: If you would feel more comfortable living in a community with certain shared values, e.g. religion, culture, language, interest, orientation, then you may want to move to an intentional community. These also may be called affinity or niche communities.