A Comprehensive Guide to Independent Living
Owning a home may be the American dream — but the real work begins once someone becomes a homeowner. Maintenance is perennial. Outdoor upkeep such as yard care and snow removal is a given; indoor upkeep includes cleaning the house, and maintaining (and eventually replacing) expensive appliances such as the refrigerator, hot water heater, dishwasher, or oven.
When we’re in our prime, such responsibilities are simply part and parcel of being a homeowner. In our later years, however, all this labor can become problematic, both in terms of physical capability and cost. Of course, you can always hire professionals to mow the lawn, clean the house, and install or fix appliances. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to just enjoy living in your home, and leave all the upkeep to someone else?
This is one of many reasons senior choose to move to a senior living community.
Independent Living Lives Up to Its Name
Independent living communities (also known as Active Adult Communities, 55+ or 62+ communities, senior living communities, or retirement communities) offer healthy seniors the freedom to enjoy their later years among like-minded adults, minus the hassles of home maintenance.
Independent living means you can select the kind of home that best suits your needs at this stage of your life, e.g., a residence all on one level (no stairs), with room for a garden. Many seniors will likely be downsizing from a larger home that was perfect for raising a family, but is more space than they need now.
Among the various types of senior accommodations, independent living options are the least restrictive, supervised or regulated. As the name implies, residents in independent living settings are able to fully care for themselves. In some settings, such as continuing care retirement communities (CCRC), independent housing is the first step in a spectrum of housing options, while others, like subsidized apartments, are designed for those with limited incomes.
This guide will provide an overview on choosing an independent living community that is right for you or your loved one.
55+ (or 62+) Independent Living Communities
Age-restricted retirement communities offer private, independent living residences designed for those 55+ (or 62+), in various types of accommodations: single-family homes, townhouses, mobile homes, or condominiums. Residents often have the choice of renting or buying. While renters typically pay a fee that covers outside maintenance, homeowners may need to pay for this service separately. Beyond a mortgage or rent, fees may include community organizations or clubhouse dues.
The biggest advantage of a retirement community may well be the camaraderie that comes from living in a community of other retirees. Lasting friendships and support systems help assuage loneliness and prevent depression, which often affects older adults, especially after the death of a spouse.
These types of settings are ideal for those who do not feel the need (or have the funds) for a Continuing Care Retirement Community.
What do Independent Living Communities Cost?
Unlike assisted living and nursing home costs, which are published annually by Genworth Financial, there is very little published pricing information available on independent living. This state-by-state chart was compiled by SeniorHomes.com:
|State||Monthly Average||Monthly Minimum||Monthly Maximum|
Senior apartments offer many of the same amenities as retirement communities, on a smaller scale. One- or two- bedroom apartments with full kitchens and bathroom allow seniors to remain independent. These 55 and over complexes usually offer disability-accessible accommodations for those who use a wheelchair or walker.
Senior living complexes may offer on-site activities such as exercise classes, recreational programs and communal dining. Some senior apartments provide visiting physicians and medical services, while others offer beauticians or other personal services.
The rent for these units can be substantially less than that of a townhouse or condo in a retirement community, and often includes most of the maintenance. This is an ideal setting for someone who is no longer interested in or able to manage home maintenance or lawn care.
Low-income / Subsidized Housing
As the name implies, subsidized housing offers independent living at reduced rates based upon income levels and disability. Low-income senior housing is subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and may still require a portion of the rent to be paid privately.
These housing complexes often have long waiting lists and strict criteria for residency. Plan accordingly if you think this may be a good option for you or a loved one.
Continuing Care Retirement Communities
The continuing care retirement community (CCRC) is a transitional setting that generally offers three distinct levels of care within the same community: independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care. Most CCRCs are designed for those who are able to live independently now, but want the security of knowing changing needs can be met as they age, without having to relocate. Some facilities also offer memory care for those with dementia.
The cost of CCRCs is high. Most charge an initial, one-time entrance or buy-in fee that varies based on several factors, including accommodations and care needs. These fees can range from $100,000 for a non-purchase (rental) agreement, with buy-in fees up to $1,000,000 or more depending on the size and location of a unit, and the community. In addition to the entrance fee, most CCRCs require monthly service fees. Again, these are variable and may change as the level of care increases.
The Independent Living arm of a CCRC offers the same advantages of living in a private home, and may provide additional amenities, such as assistance with lawn care and other home maintenance chores.
There are a number of advantages to residing in CCRC independent living, such as:
- Promotion of an active lifestyle
- Supportive social environment
- Proper medical care
- Good nutrition
- Overall wellness encouraged
Contractual Obligations: There are three basic types of contracts a senior can enter into when choosing a CCCRC. Consider each community’s contract options based on your impending or potential future care needs:
- Life Care or Extended Contract: The most expensive option, this “Full Life” contract covers shelter, residential services, amenities, and unlimited long-term nursing care and other health care services at no additional charge.
- Modified Life Care Contract: Covers shelter, residential services, amenities, and limited nursing coverage, beyond which the resident must pay for it at standard daily or monthly rates. This option makes sense for residents whose assets are sufficient to absorb the cost of care that is not covered by contract.
- Fee-for-Service Contract: The initial enrollment fee will be lower, but beyond shelter, residential services, and amenities, residents are required to pay full daily rates for long-term nursing care. People who prefer more control over the services they select may opt for this type of contract.
Entrance Fees: While the entrance fee varies based on services and accommodations selected, there are generally two types: traditional and refundable. The traditional fee tends to be less expensive, but is non-refundable; the refundable fee is more costly but can be prorated if the resident decides to leave the facility.
Miscellaneous Fees: Although the entrance fees and monthly services fees will cover most of the room and board, there will inevitably be more costs involved in day-to-day living. Be sure to speak with the CCRC administrators about realistic costs that may be associated with the community.
Accommodations: In some communities there are several choices for independent living accommodations, from three bedroom cottages and condominiums to one-bedroom apartments. This is often a personal preference, but may be dictated by health care needs, entrance fees, and monthly service fees associated with each option.
Accreditation: Accreditation is a process that demonstrates a provider has met the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) standards for service quality. This rigorous, voluntary process means a CCRC 1) commits to quality improvement, 2) focuses on the unique needs of each person the provider serves, 3) meets the performance standards of CARF, and 4) monitors the results of services.
Accreditation is distinct from licensing, which is required and regulated by state. All CCRCs must maintain a certificate of authority and a license to operate a residential care facility in the state in which they operate. In addition, any CCRC that offers skilled nursing services must hold a skilled nursing facility license. Most states issue licenses and monitor CCRCs through the state’s Department of Health and the Department of Social Services. A licensing survey is typically done every three years and must be prominently posted.
Sustainability: Will the facility be around in 10-15 years? You don’t want the money you invested in the community to be lost because of poor administration — nor would you want to have to start the housing quest all over again.
What to Ask All Potential Independent Living Communities
Regardless of the type of independent living you choose, there are important questions to consider when finding the right place to call home:
- Do you like the facility’s location and outward appearance?
- Is the facility convenient for frequent visits by family and friends?
- Is it near a shopping and entertainment complex?
- Can the resident access a medical complex easily?
- Is public transportation available?
- Are you welcomed with a warm greeting from the staff?
- Does the staff address residents by their names and interact with them during your tour?
- Do you notice the residents socializing with each other, and do they appear content?
- Can you talk with residents about how they like living there — and about the staff?
- Is the staff appropriately dressed, friendly and outgoing?
- Do staff members treat each other in a professional manner?
- Are visits with the residents encouraged, and welcome at any time?
- What percentage of apartments has been rented and occupied?
- Is there a waiting list? If so, how long do they estimate it will be for a unit to become available?
Living Area and Accommodations
- Is the floor plan well designed and easy to follow?
- Are doorways, hallways and rooms built to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers?
- Do stairs have handrails?
- Are elevators available for those unable to use stairways?
- Are floors made of a non-skid material, and carpets conducive to safe walking?
- Does the residence have good lighting, sprinklers and clearly marked exits?
- Is the residence clean, free of odors and appropriately heated/cooled?
- Are the common areas attractive, comfortable and clean?
- Is there an outside courtyard or patio for residents and visitors? Are they permitted to garden?
- Does the residence provide ample security? Is there an emergency evacuation plan?
- Are there different sizes and types of units available, with optional floor plans?
- Are both single and double occupancy units available?
- Does the residence offer a choice of furnished/unfurnished rooms? What is provided or what may they bring?
- May they decorate their own rooms? Is there adequate storage space?
- Is a 24-hour emergency response system accessible from the unit with own lockable door?
- Are private bathrooms built to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers?
- Do units have a landline telephone and cable TV? How is billing handled?
- Is the facility Internet enabled for residents? Is WiFi included in the service fee?
- Does the kitchen in the unit have refrigerator/sink/cooking element? Are residents permitted to keep food in their units?
- May residents smoke in their units, or are there designated public areas? Would you or your loved one prefer a smoke-free facility?
Moving In, Contracts, and Finances
- What is involved with the moving in/out process?
- Does the contractual agreement clearly disclose healthcare, accommodations, personal care, supportive services, all fees, as well as admission and discharge provisions?
- Is there a written statement of resident rights and responsibilities?
- Do residents own or rent their units? What is the payment schedule?
- How much is the monthly fee? How often can the facility increase fees, and for what reasons?
- What happens if funds become depleted and full payments are no longer possible?
- Are there any government, private or corporate programs available to help cover costs?
- What additional services are available if the resident’s needs change? Is staff available to coordinate these services?
- Is there a procedure to pay for additional services such as skilled nursing care or physical therapy when such services are required on a temporary basis?
Health and Personal Care Services
- What health and personal care services are available?
- Who provides these services/what are their qualifications?
- How are medical emergencies handled?
- Is there a staff person to coordinate home care visits from a nurse, physical or occupational therapist, etc. when needed on a temporary basis?
- Are housekeeping, linen service and personal laundry included in the fees, or are they available at an additional charge? Are on-site laundry facilities available and convenient?
- Are pharmacy, barber/beautician and/or physical therapy services offered on-site or nearby?
Social and Recreational
- What kinds of group/individual recreational activities are offered?
- Does the facility schedule trips, or take interested residents to off-site events?
- Do residents participate in activities in the neighboring community?
- Are there supplies for social activities/hobbies (games, cards, crafts, computers, gardening)?
- Are religious services held on the premises, or are arrangements made for nearby services? How important is this feature to you/your loved one?
- Are there fitness facilities onsite? What about regularly scheduled exercise classes?
- Are residents’ pets allowed in the units/common areas? Does the facility have its own resident pets?
- Are meals provided? How many meals are included in the fee?
- Does a qualified dietitian plan or approve menus?
- Are residents involved in menu planning, and may they request special foods or food preparation for restricted diets (e.g., salt-free, gluten-free, etc.)?
- Does the dining room environment encourage residents to relax, socialize, and enjoy their food?
- Is there flexibility in the dining schedule? Are snacks available?
- If a resident becomes ill, is tray service available?
- Can residents have guests dine with them for an additional fee? Is there a private dining room for special events and occasions, if desired?
Independent living is the ultimate goal for most aging adults, whether in the home they’ve owned for 50 years or an apartment into which they’ve just “downsized”. The choices may be dictated by funds, or by personal taste, but ultimately home is where the heart is. We trust this guide has helped you make an informed decision about the various types of independent living communities available.