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What is Independent Living and are they all the same?

As you may know, I have worked in senior living for my whole career. I have learned a lot about the differences in independent living versus assisted living and what the terminology generally includes.

Most think that an independent living senior community is for people who might be downsizing their large homes and want to live in a communal apartment or cottage where their dwelling, maintenance, and some amenities are included. This is a vast overgeneralization but it’s essentially true.

To be clear, there is a difference between independent living and over 55 communities. Over 55 is a living situation where you buy your home or condo and have a home owners association fee that covers landscaping and maybe a pool and tennis court. Most over 55 communities don’t offer transportation or activities, though some might have a volunteer that puts things together for the residents. The desirability of an over 55 is that that you won’t have families with young children living in your general vicinity. Let’s be real though, is anyone who is currently 55 moving into an over 55 community? Not likely. They should just call it over 65.

Some people skip the over 55 and go straight from their homes to an independent living community. Generally, though care is not included, there are amenities such as meals, activities, transportation and housekeeping. This option is often a viable solution if the individual is lonely and would benefit from socialization, if they need a little help with meals, light housekeeping and transportation, or if they just want to downsize and have a few less things to worry about.

Where independent living sometimes falls short (though it’s not the fault of the communities) is when someone is in denial about the help they may need.

I can’t tell you how many times I worked with families that had the impression that independent living was going to solve their care problems and keep their loved one independent when they really needed the additional help with their activities of daily living such as taking medications, dressing and bathing.

We’re seeing older and older residents in independent living who really shouldn’t be there. I’m all for helping people live their best lives, but if the independent living community is vast and your loved one has a mobility challenge, is it really the right choice?

Though independent living tends to be a more affordable monthly rate, depending on the structure of the community, think about the costs of moving your loved one twice. Not just the financial cost but the emotional cost on your loved one and the rest of the family.

All independent living isn’t the same either. Depending on finances, there are pretty much independent living communities for every budget, including low income. I won’t go over low income senior housing because it’s really a whole different monster. If you know you will need low income senior housing, you will definitely want to call your local office on aging to get some support and get on a waiting list because they can be extensive.

The fancy buy-in option:

The buy-in option is usually a bit more on the pricey side and often has a lot of amenities such as a pool, fitness center, tennis court, fancy restaurant, etc. This is probably the most tenured of the independent living options out there today. They have been around for many years and often have a decent reputation.

The draw of the buy-in is that you pay a large lump sum up front, but will be taken care of for the rest of your days, even if you run out of money. Don’t be fooled though, not all buy-ins offer this. If you’re shopping for independent living, be sure to ask lots of questions about the continuum of care and what is actually covered. I once worked for a buy-in independent living that did not guarantee care once finances ran out. What they did offer is your buy-in back (once you moved out and sold your apartment.) This is a nice option for those who need that buy-in money for care options down the road or if they are intending to leave the buy-in for their estate after their death.

Some buy-ins, usually the not-for-profit ones, will offer a full continuum of care though you’ll never see your money again. This offers peace of mind to know that if you do run out of money, you’ll still be cared for. The risk with this option is that you trust that the company will not go under or be sold before you receive all the services that you expected. Also, if you are unsatisfied with the living situation, you have fewer options for getting your buy-in money back if you want to move out.

Also, if you buy in and the community decides you will need to move to assisted living or skilled care, you often don’t have the choice of how you will be cared for. I’ve seen it happen in continuing care retirement communities where if you can no longer walk or transfer on your own but have no other skilled nursing need, they will likely ask you to move to skilled nursing because they don’t staff the assisted living for heavy care. Skilled nursing, even in the nicest places often will place you with a roommate in essentially a hospital room with little to no personalization or privacy.

While none of us can truly see the future, these are questions you should definitely ask yourself and the community before committing the rest of your life to one place. Be sure to tour the assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing portions of the CCRC before you make your final decision.

Rental Independent Living Options:

Rental only independent living is a fairly new model in the U.S., but one that is taking off like wild fire. I feel like they are building them on every corner these days. The option is desirable because they don’t require a large lump sum buy-in but will still offer amenities such as game rooms, movie theaters, gyms and some even do have pools. Most will have a community fee of a few thousand dollars but generally won’t require a sale of a house or liquidation of stocks to be able to afford.

The price point will generally depend on the size of the dwelling and how much is included in the monthly rent. Some independent living places will include three meals a day in a dining room or restaurant, but most will offer one to two or less. If dining is a big deal to you or your loved one, I would suggest trying to negotiate more meals if they aren’t all included.

This is where, as an industry, we’re seeing older and older residents moving in. They wait until the house becomes too much, they don’t want the buy-in, but they want some amenities. Most times there is an underlying care need also. Sometimes it’s a spouse that needs care from the other, or it’s a family’s hail Mary pass to to get mom out of her dangerous situation. Some seniors feel that if they move to independent living, they aren’t necessarily agreeing to needing support. This denial game can be dangerous for the individual, the family and even the community.

It’s important to understand the policy of each community when it comes to care as they aren’t all the same. Do they require you to move to assisted living if care needs are present or are you able to hire your own care in independent living? This is a great question to ask. If the community offers home care in the independent living apartment, through their own business, are you required to use their home care or do you still have choice? These are important questions to ask when shopping for independent living.

Once you have established a place, continue to do your homework. You will want to read the fine print as the contracts for these places can be lengthy. I would also recommend that you hire an eldercare attorney to read over the contract before signing to ensure you fully understand your rights and what you are signing up for. Be sure to ask a lot of questions and ask for the contract ahead of time before signing so you have plenty of time to go over it.

The process of shopping for independent living can be daunting but if you are prepared, you can make an informed decision for yourself or a loved one.

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