Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Are the Different Senior Living Environments?

This guide shows you the various senior living options and how to find them.

Source: SeventyFour/CanvaPro

Navigating the waters of senior living can be a bit overwhelming and confusing. Since there are a wide variety of senior housing options available, it’s helpful to learn about the differences before you start looking. Here’s a primer to get you started.

Independent Living Community (IL)

A multi-unit apartment community usually available as a rental. Most ILs offer social and recreational opportunities, including two meals a day. Some offer services such as housekeeping, transportation, and home health care services.

Assisted Living Community (AL)

They provide a special combination of housing, personalized supportive services, and health care to meet the needs of those who don’t require full-time skilled nursing care but might need help with activities of daily living (ADLs). They offer apartments ranging in size which may include studios, one- or two-bedrooms, social and recreational opportunities, three meals a day, housekeeping, laundry, and transportation.

Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF)

Rehab or short-term care: State licensed facility that provides 24-hour skilled patient care due to hospitalization, complex physical or complex cognitive conditions, and assistance with multiple ADLs. A patient must be admitted and followed by a physician. The maximum length of stay is 100 days— the first 20 days are paid for by Medicare; days 21-100 require a co-payment.

Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF), Residential Long-Term Care/Nursing Home:

Medicare generally doesn't cover long-term, custodial care stays in a nursing home. Nursing home care can be expensive, and there are several ways to pay for it. Most people who enter nursing homes begin by paying for their care out-of-pocket. As you use your resources (like bank accounts and stocks) over a period of time, you may eventually become eligible for Medicaid.

Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC)

A community that offers apartments with several levels of assistance, including IL, AL, and SNF home care so residents have the ability to “age in place.” CCRC usually provides a written agreement or long-term contract between the resident and the community and requires a large buy-in fee.

Residential Care Home Assisted Living

A licensed assisted living residence providing a watchful environment and personal services to adults who require varying degrees of supervision and protective care. The homes are smaller with two to eight residents, usually offering a shared or private bedroom, shared bathrooms, and a lower patient to caregiver ratio. The high-quality ones provide home-cooked meals with residents usually eating around a dining room table in a homey atmosphere. These are especially good for individuals needing a lot of care, and not able to socialize much anymore. It’s important to work with a senior placement advisor who is a certified senior advisor (CSA) to find high-quality residential care homes.

Memory Care (MC)

MC offers specialized programs for residents suffering from memory loss. Programs and activities are planned with dementia care in mind. Overall room sizes are smaller because they don’t spend much time in their individual rooms. For residents' safety, all MC facilities are secured with fences and alarms.

Remember, no family has to go through a senior living transition alone. Senior industry experts can help to guide you in the right direction, take you on tours of communities, answer your questions and be your advocate. Senior Living Advisors provide a free service, so don’t be afraid to ask for help! (Thanks to Candy Cohn, CSA for sharing this helpful resource.)

Ready to find senior living? Three next steps to consider

1. Familiarize yourself with different types of living environments.

It’s very common for older adults to fear that they are “going to be put away” in a nursing home. When in fact, even if they need assisted living, they may not ever need skilled nursing as in the form of a nursing home. Download the Caring for Aging Parents Checklist for conversation starters and a list of the various senior living options described above.

2. Consider what city the older adult may live in—or be moving to.

Finances and proximity to family play a large role in this decision for many families. For example, long-distance caregivers tend to spend more money annually than caregivers who live near their older adult loved ones.

3. Identify what is available.

Once you identify what type of living environment (assisted living community, personal care home, continuing care retirement community, skilled nursing home, etc) and the city, do your homework to identify what is available. Here are some strategies for finding living environments:

  • Contact your local Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) and ask for a list of senior living options. Ask if they have senior living advisors available to help.
  • Contact an independent Senior Living Advisor by googling senior living advisors by city. For example, Candy Cohn, CSA, who contributed to this post, is a local senior living advisor with Oasis Senior advisors in Boca Raton, Florida. There may be equivalent senior living advisors in your city.


Want more tips on caring for aging parents? Download the free Caring for Aging Parents Checklist and listen to the Psychology of Aging Podcast

More from Regina Koepp PsyD, ABPP
More from Psychology Today