Independent Living

As seniors ease into retirement, they often think about changing their lifestyles. After children grow up and move out of the family home, continuing to maintain the house and yard may become an unwelcome burden. When aging neighbors sell their houses to young families with children, seniors may yearn for a more peaceful living environment.

Independent living communities provide an option for seniors who are reasonably self-sufficient. They allow seniors to live in a relaxed environment that frees them from the responsibility of mowing lawns and repairing broken garage doors. Seniors can enjoy the company of other retirees while focusing on the interests they now have time to pursue.

What is an independent living community?
Who can live in an independent living community?
What amenities do independent living communities provide?
What services do independent living communities provide?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent living communities?

Related: For more on the cost of Independent Living Communities, see The Cost of Independent Living Communities.

What is an independent living community?

As the name implies, independent living communities allow seniors to live independently. They are well suited to “active” seniors who are able to tend to their own hygiene and manage their own medications. Seniors who need help with activities of daily living may find an assisted living community to be the best fit. Those who need daily medical attention, whether permanent or temporary, should look at nursing homes (or skilled nursing facilities).

Independent living communities take different forms. Some, often known as “retirement homes,” are similar to apartment buildings or complexes that rent units to seniors. Units range from single rooms to multiple-bedroom apartments with small kitchens. They may be furnished or unfurnished.

Other independent living environments, sometimes known as “retirement communities,” feature condominiums, townhouses, or small homes that seniors own. Some retirement communities allow owners to lease their property to other seniors.

Who can live in an independent living community?

While there are many different kinds of independent living communities, they all share one common feature. Residence in the community is restricted by age. They are typically available only to individuals who have attained the age of 50 or 55, although some make exceptions for spouses who have not yet reached the minimum age.

Independent living communities allow children and other guests to visit residents, but not to live with them. Children are ordinarily welcome to stay with a resident for a limited period of time (typically a few weeks) but children and other visitors who have not reached the minimum age are usually not allowed to live with the resident permanently.

What amenities do independent living communities provide?

The communities offer varying levels of amenities that may include golf courses, swimming pools, tennis or paddleball courts, shuffleboard and bocce ball, hobby rooms, recreational centers, nature trails, fitness centers, and gardening areas. Some have spas or salons that cater to residents. Larger communities may have a bank or convenience store within their boundaries.

Communal meals prepared by a chef are a common feature of independent living communities. Some provide three communal meals a day while others offer one or two. Some have a fixed daily menu while others give residents a choice of meals. Some serve gourmet food while others offer simple fare. Of course, many independent seniors enjoy preparing their own meals and eating in the comfort of their own units.

Basic cable television service and wireless internet may be included in the monthly fees that residents pay. Some larger communities even have their own television channel or a small theater, permitting residents to participate in the performing arts.

Communities typically host a variety of clubs that residents can join. Residents may engage in activities (such as sewing or playing bridge) within the community or they may participate in group activities outside the community’s boundaries. Some communities employ an activities director who arranges excursions and other activities for residents to enjoy. Activities may include exercise programs, shopping trips, and age-appropriate adventures involving rafting or bicycling.

“Gated” communities assure resident safety by requiring visitors to obtain a pass before entering the community. Security officers may also patrol the community to enforce speed limits and to provide an emergency response to residents who experience a health crisis.

Tip: With so many options from which to choose, it is wise to visit several communities before choosing the one that is best for you. Deciding whether you want to own or rent is usually a good starting place that will help you narrow your options.

What services do independent living communities provide?

When residents purchase a unit within an independent living community, the community’s staff takes care of exterior property maintenance, including repairs to roofs and exterior walls and maintaining lawns and common areas. The responsibility for maintaining the interior of the resident’s home is often the owner’s, although some communities may have a handyman on call to help seniors repair leaky faucets or broken floor tiles. Residents who rent are generally freed from responsibility for making repairs within their units.

Some communities offer daily or weekly housekeeping services. Some make laundry services available to residents. Those services may be included in the monthly fee that residents pay or fees may be charged only for the services that residents decide to use.

Unlike assisted living communities, independent living communities do not provide help with the activities of daily living. Seniors who need minimal assistance can hire a home health care provider to make periodic visits. Seniors in need of greater assistance should generally explore assisted living options.

Tip: Some continuing-care retirement communities combine independent living and assisted living within the same community. Active seniors initially move into an independent living unit and transition into assisted living if that need arises later in life.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent living communities?

The opportunity to enjoy a stress-free life in a socially-engaging environment is the key advantage of an independent living community. Freed from the burden of maintaining a home, seniors are able to pursue leisurely lifestyles. Independent living communities give seniors the opportunity to make new friends as they explore new or lifelong interests.

There are also health benefits to joining an independent living community. Widows and widowers who live far from their children often feel isolated when they continue living in the family home. Isolation typically leads to depression, lethargy, and declining health. Moving to an independent living community encourages seniors to socialize, to exercise, and to participate in a variety of fun activities. Seniors are more likely to maintain health and mental alertness when they share an active lifestyle with their peers.

Despite the advantages of independent living communities, they are not right for every senior. Some seniors need more assistance than an independent living community can provide. While many communities provide prompt access to paramedics and emergency health services, they are not usually staffed with nurses or other healthcare providers that may be needed by seniors who live with serious health conditions.

Even if a senior is an appropriate candidate for an independent living community, he or she may not be emotionally ready to make the transition. While some seniors look forward to moving out of a family home that has emptied over the years, others feel rooted in the house where they raised a family. Some seniors feel a connection to a neighborhood that they are reluctant to leave. They would rather cope with the burdens of home maintenance than leave the place that has produced so many cherished memories and friendships.

The choice to remain in an empty nest or to move to a new environment is one that most seniors will eventually need to make. Independent living communities are a logical choice for many seniors who are ready to take that step.


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