Finding the right assistance can make a huge difference as we get older. Having someone drop off meals weekly, for example, can give a senior healthy food that is easy to reheat and save them the mental and physical energy of creating a meal plan, chopping, dicing, and cooking. Similarly, a senior who is frustrated and exhausted after their morning dressing and grooming routine can benefit from the extra energy they get when someone is there to offer a helping hand with those tasks.
Senior living communities are often the solution for adults who are looking for some additional support with household tasks, personal care tasks, or medical management.
However, how can you know which senior living community is the right one for you or your loved one? It begins by understanding your options. Senior living communities generally fall into one of four categories: independent living, assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing. Assisted living and skilled nursing can sometimes seem like the same thing to family members, but the differences are there, and they matter.
The major difference assisted living has as a nursing home alternative is the type of care provided at the community. Assisted living is a great option for seniors who need extra support or assistance with day-to-day tasks. A skilled nursing or healthcare community, once referred to as a nursing home, offers more comprehensive support to seniors with extensive medical needs.
Here’s what you need to know about these two senior living solutions.
What Is Assisted Living?
Assisted living communities offer community living in a non-clinical environment. They can also offer some medical support services, help with diet and nutrition issues, and assist with incontinence. In most assisted living communities, a licensed nurse completes a comprehensive individualized assessment for each resident, and caregiving staff is on-site or accessible 24 hours a day.
Geriatricians and other healthcare professionals, such as dentists or chiropractors, will often see clients on-site. Some assisted living communities have even started offering physical and occupational therapy or wellness rooms supervised by licensed nurses.
Additionally, some assisted living communities offer specialized memory care units for those living with cognitive decline. A memory care solution is ideal for someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia because staff members are trained in best practices of care and family members can get additional support and education.
It’s important to ask about the types of care the community offers, especially if your loved one has a chronic or progressive medical condition. Some assisted living communities provide different levels of care and support based on what each resident needs, and they many offer a continuum of care by contracting with skilled nursing companies or offering an on-site nursing home for residents whose support needs change.
Similar to skilled nursing or healthcare communities, assisted living communities deliver personal care, light housekeeping, and laundry. They also offer on-site restaurants that serve three meals a day, including special meals for those with medical conditions such as diabetes. In addition, both types of residential alternatives are equipped with safety systems, such as emergency pull cords.
For a more detailed explanation of what assisted living is, read our What is Assisted Living guide.
Determining if It Is Time for Assisted Living
An assisted living community is a good choice for a senior who needs additional support with their activities of daily living (ADLs). These activities may include dressing, showering, grooming, and toileting. Assisted living communities also provide socialization opportunities through events, programs, and excursions that make it easy to connect with neighbors and explore the greater community.
It might be time to explore assisted living if you or your loved one:
- Has fallen in the past six months.
- Lives with chronic pain or a complex medication condition.
- Struggles with medication management.
- Feels lonely, isolated, depressed, or anxious.
- Struggles with nutritional needs, such as grocery shopping, meal preparation, or healthy eating.
- Needs a helping hand when it comes to daily personal care or household upkeep.
Who Can Benefit From Assisted Living?
An assisted living community is a terrific match for someone who has some health problems or needs help with tasks such as bathing and dressing. Many seniors who choose assisted living remain independent aside from a few daily tasks. In fact, some assisted living residents drive their own cars, cook some of their own meals, and come and go on their own schedules.
Thanks to personalized care plans, residents of assisted living communities experience enhanced independence and a newfound peace of mind. Residents all have unique needs and preferences, making communities diverse and vibrant.
Cost of Assisted Living Communities
Assisted living communities vary in cost depending on location, amenities, and services. Typically, communities charge a monthly fee that covers nearly all services, including meal plans, activities, transportation, and a spacious apartment.
Assisted living communities generally cost more than independent senior apartments but much less than nursing homes.
What Is A Skilled Nursing Facility?
More commonly known as a skilled nursing facility, a nursing home provides the highest level of care possible outside of a hospital. Many seniors move to a nursing home following a hospital stay, surgery, or procedure. Nursing homes deliver 24-hour care to seniors who have complex medical conditions and need hands-on assistance and monitoring.
Residents receive skilled care and may even be confined to bed, be totally incontinent, or rely on G-tube feeding for nutrition. In many cases, residents are there short-term to recover from a hospital stay or procedure. In other cases, residents are there long-term to receive comprehensive healthcare interventions 24 hours a day.
A licensed physician supervises each patient’s care, a nurse is always on the premises, and other medical professionals — such as occupational, physical, or speech therapists — are also on hand. Many nursing homes have medical equipment that is normally found in hospitals, such as X-ray machines or electric beds. In addition, these facilities often offer short-term rehabilitation services for adults of any age who can then return home.
Determining if It Is Time for a Skilled Nursing Facility
A transition from home or an assisted living community to a nursing home is a personal decision but may occur after a senior is facing ongoing medical care needs. A skilled nursing facility is designed to meet particular medical needs, whether those needs are simple pain management, more complex rehabilitation, or something in between. Residents in skilled nursing facilities typically need assistance with tasks that go beyond ADLs.
Who Can Benefit From a Skilled Nursing Facility?
A nursing home can be the right choice for someone who, because of their medical needs, requires full-time care and access to services that are more similar to a hospital than a home. Some families choose to transition a senior loved one to a nursing home after a serious infection or when the senior is continually in and out of the hospital.
Because skilled nursing facilities offer extensive care, they can provide more stability to seniors who might otherwise spend extended time in the hospital. Some nursing homes also deliver hospice services, providing palliative care to seniors who are nearing the end of their senior living journey.
However, if a senior’s needs are more minimal — such as assistance with ADLs including bathing, dressing, or toileting — or if a senior needs simple care — such as physical therapy and medication management — a nursing home may be too restrictive and needlessly add costs.
Cost of Skilled Nursing Facilities
Skilled nursing facilities typically are more expensive than assisted living communities because of the type of care offered. However, it is important to keep in mind that nearly all nursing homes are certified to participate in Medicare or Medicaid financial assistance programs. Medicare covers most skilled nursing stays as long as there is a qualifying hospital stay beforehand at 100 percent for the first 20 days and then 80 percent for days 21-100.
What Is the Difference Between Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing Facility?
When it comes down to it, assisted living communities are designed to be more similar to home, whereas a skilled nursing facility is designed to be a more clinical environment. Both of these senior living solutions are necessary within the senior living continuum, and you might find that you or your loved one needs a short-term stay at a nursing home to recover from hospitalization before returning to assisted living.
Type of Care Offered
|Caregiver assistance with activities of daily living such as showering, grooming, mobility, and medication management.||Support and assistance with activities of daily living as well as skilled care services such as wound care, chronic disease management, IV management, and physical, occupational, and speech therapy.|
|About $4,500 per month, which includes your home, utilities, meals, and access to amenities and events.||About $9,000 per month for a private room if you are paying out of pocket. However, Medicare does cover skilled nursing care if the senior has met their three-night qualifying hospital stay.|
Services and Amenities
|Amenities can include outdoor spaces, a fitness center, an on-site salon and spa, a post office, and a dining room. Services can include on-site outpatient therapy, a vibrant event calendar, clinician visits, and more.||Amenities are similar to those offered in assisted living but typically are not as luxurious as an AL community. Services include an event calendar, clinician visits, and nursing oversight.|
Homes and Floor Plans
|Residents often choose between multiple floor plan options that include studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom options. Each home has its own bathroom and kitchenette.||Residents typically have rooms, and private rooms typically cost more than semi-private rooms. Depending on the community, residents might share their bathroom with one or more people.|
Friends and Family
|Friends and family are welcome to visit and attend events with their loved one.||Friends and family are welcome to visit and attend events with their loved one.|
Choosing the Right Care for Your Loved One
If your loved one is not in the hospital and facing a quick discharge right now, you and your family have time to thoughtfully research and plan your senior living options. Knowing the differences between the types of communities out there can expedite the process because you can narrow down your list quickly based on the care your loved one needs.
If you aren’t sure what type of support or care your loved one needs, talk to their physician. Also, be sure to include your loved one in the discussion so that they can have autonomy over what comes next as well as share what they are struggling with so that you can work through those challenges together.
Learn more about assisted living, a very popular type of senior living thanks to its focus on enhanced independence and peace of mind, by downloading our free resource, “The Complete Guide to Assisted Living.” You’ll learn more about this type of senior living solution including costs, touring advice, and transitioning to a community.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the difference between assisted living and a nursing home?
A “nursing home,” which is better known as a skilled nursing facility (SNF) or a healthcare community, offers around-the-clock skilled nursing care. Skilled nursing care is care that can only be provided by licensed medical professionals such as nurses or therapists. This care can include wound management, IV management, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. Assisted living communities do not offer these skilled nursing services.
Is assisted living a nursing home?
No. The term “nursing home” is an antiquated term used to describe skilled nursing facilities, sometimes called SNFs or healthcare communities. A skilled nursing facility provides skilled nursing services. Assisted living communities offer around-the-clock caregiver support but do not offer skilled services like wound management or IV management.
What’s the difference between assisted living and skilled nursing?
The main difference between assisted living and skilled nursing is the type of care provided. Skilled nursing facilities, or SNFs, provide skilled nursing care, which are services that can only be performed by licensed medical professionals like nurses or therapists. Assisted living communities often have nurses on staff or provide outpatient therapy services at the community, but they do not provide around-the-clock skilled care.
This post was updated in October 2022.