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What Really Is Assisted Living?

Assisted living is a type of care for older adults who need help with normal daily activities that’s provided in a residential facility. To best understand what assisted living is, it can be helpful to define what it’s not. It is not a nursing home or a setting where residents need round-the-clock medical care. Instead, seniors in assisted living receive personal care and assistance with activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, grooming and toileting so that they’re able to live as independently as possible. 

What’s more, a look around a typical assisted living community will reveal something far different from the clinical setting many imagine when they hear the words “retirement home.” While each community is different, assisted living facilities in the U.S. today typically offer a wide range of convenient services, comforts, amenities and enriching activities to ensure residents get the help and care they need, in a setting they can call “home.”

While there is no federal definition of “assisted living” in the U.S., the term generally refers to a type of personal care for people who need assistance with various activities of daily living — such as dressing, bathing and grooming — in order to live as independently as possible. 

Assisted living care is typically provided in long-term residential facilities, where mostly elderly residents live and receive daily care and services from on-site staff. Unlike skilled nursing care, assisted living does not include medical care services (such as managing catheters, IVs or dressing wounds).

Who is a Good Candidate for Assisted Living?

Assisted living falls somewhere between an independent living community and a skilled nursing facility in terms of the level of care provided. If the person in your care is beginning to need help with the basic activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, grooming, walking, managing medications, toileting, and eating) — or expects to need that help down the line — she may find this support at a good assisted-living community. 

If an older adult has a serious medical condition that requires specialized care, assisted living may not be the right choice, although some assisted-living communities do have specialized wings that provide skilled nursing or Alzheimer’s care.

Assisted Living Care, Services and Amenities

Today’s senior assisted living communities offer a wide variety of services and amenities to their residents. Oftentimes less expensive than skilled nursing facilities or in-home care, most assisted living communities have a full, round-the-clock staff trained to assist residents with a variety of daily activities, from eating, bathing and dressing to medication management, toileting and help with incontinence. Many assisted living centers also provide specialized care for residents with dementia.

Assisted living goes by different names in different states, and licensing requirements will vary. Here in our assisted living directory, you’ll find assisted living providers, personal care homes, board and care homes and Alzheimer’s care facilities.

Most assisted living facilities also provide housekeeping, three daily meals plus snacks, scheduled transportation, health and exercise programs, and a host of organized health activities and events. Many communities feature on-site amenities like gyms, swimming pools, common areas for socializing, beauty salons, pharmacies, libraries, pets and more.

Types of Care Provided

Since assisted living communities are not regulated nationally, there are some differences in the exact services and standards delivered from state to state. Some states, for example, require assisted living staff members to undergo more than 24 hours of training, while other states have zero training requirements. 

Still, there are a number of standard services provided to residents at the vast majority of assisted living communities across the U.S. These include personal care services in the form of assistance with activities of daily living such as:

  • Eating
  • Dressing
  • Grooming
  • Bathing
  • Toileting
  • Walking
  • Medication management

In addition to personal care, just about every assisted living community in the country offers the following services:

  • Meals
  • Scheduled Transportation
  • Housekeeping
  • Cleaning services
  • Organized activities

While some of these services are included in a resident’s monthly payment, others will cost more, so it’s important to check with community staff about any additional fees.

Common Services and Amenities

Assisted living communities today are not the retirement homes of yesteryear — in fact, many offer a wide range of amenities to ensure their residents not only have more than just the typical comforts of home. Every community is different, and some assisted living communities offer more basic amenities that cover the essentials while other facilities can resemble a high-end resort. 

It’s always best to tour a facility before any decisions are made about moving in to get a firsthand peek at what amenities are available and consider how they may impact a resident’s quality of life.

Your loved one and any primary caregivers should undergo an initial assessment at the community, which will allow staff to determine the level of care they will need. Staff typically conduct regular follow-up assessments and will make adjustments to a resident’s care level as needed. 

Beyond that, every community is different when it comes to the amenities and services available. 

Assisted Living Amenities to Consider

Memory Care

Many assisted living communities today offer what’s known as memory care, or assisted living-style services and care tailored for residents with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. In assisted living facilities where this type of care is offered, the memory care unit is usually either in its own wing or in a separate building on the property. Visit our Memory Care page to learn more about this type of care community and browse memory care providers near you.

Community Culture

While the types of services and amenities an assisted living facility offers can tell you a lot about whether it will be the right fit, each community also has its own feel or culture. A community’s unique culture can make all the difference for prospective residents who are choosing between multiple facilities. Some parts of an assisted living community’s culture are more tangible — like the decor or whether there are lots of common spaces for residents to mingle. Meanwhile, others, like the ethnic and cultural diversity of its residents, or the activities director’s propensity to schedule fun and unexpected events for residents, are less easily explained in a brochure or online description. 

Some assisted living facilities today are specifically designed with a certain type of senior in mind – from those that speak a particular language to LGBT seniors or even golf enthusiasts.


Pets can be like family, and they offer numerous benefits for adults of all ages, so a growing number of assisted living communities today accommodate these animal companions. More and more assisted living facilities allow residents to bring a small pet such as a cat or small dog, but even pet-friendly facilities tend to have restrictions on larger breeds, so it’s important to talk specifics when considering different communities.

Meanwhile, other communities may not allow individual residents to bring pets but instead adopt community pets or visiting therapy animals for all residents to enjoy.

How Assisted Living Compares to Other Senior Living Options

Most older adults at some point in their later years will need some type of senior care. And while most seniors say they’d prefer to stay in their own home for as long as possible, the realities of health issues such as limited mobility, plus finances or lack of family members available to help out full-time can make that option unmanageable.

Assisted living is a long-term residential care option designed for older adults who need some help with activities of daily living but who do not need skilled nursing care. Below, are some important differences between assisted living and the key types of senior care available today.

Assisted Living Communities vs. Nursing Homes

People often confuse assisted living facilities for nursing homes, but the two senior care options are very different. 

The key difference: assisted living communities provide personal care and assistance with adls for residents who need help with these activities but do not require skilled nursing care, while nursing homes provide round-the-clock skilled care and medical support. For example, a nursing home would be a good fit for someone who needs a feeding tube, while assisted living would not. 

Another big distinction is the types of services and amenities offered: assisted living communities typically offer a wider range of social activities and outings and have a less institutional, more communal feel than nursing homes. 

Also, nursing home care comes at a much higher price — it’s often twice the cost of assisted living. At the same time, Medicaid and Medicare can be used to cover skilled nursing home costs, which is rarely the case for assisted living.

Visit our Nursing Homes page to learn more about this type of senior care.

Assisted Living vs. Memory Care

As the need for assisted living care rises with a surging senior population in the U.S., so too does the demand for memory care, a specialized form of long-term care for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. 

Today many assisted living communities offer memory care in addition to assisted living care for residents without dementia, typically in a separate wing or building of the same facility. The key difference between these two options are that memory care is specialized for those with dementia, while assisted living is not. 

Memory care facilities have staff that are specially trained to provide care to residents with dementia, while assisted living facilities are not required to have staff with this training. Everything, from the types of organized activities that take place at the community to the presence of physical safeguards such as secured courtyards and doors with alarms, is typically designed with those with dementia in mind. This specialized form of long-term senior care also comes with a higher price tag — the average monthly cost of memory care in the U.S. is $5,000, compared to $3,750 for assisted living.

Visit our Memory Care page to learn more about this senior care option.

Assisted Living vs. In-Home Care

The biggest differences between assisted living care and in-home care are the most obvious — in assisted living, residents living in a community of other adults receiving care, while in-home care takes place in an individual home. The type of assistance provided by both assisted living communities and home-care providers usually overlap, and include personal care and help with activities of daily living. Neither assisted living nor in-home care providers administer skilled nursing care, which is provided by home health care providers or at skilled nursing facilities, also known as “nursing homes.”

Assisted living communities provide many amenities and services that are not provided via in-home care, such as daily meals and snacks, organized activities and outings and on-site exercise rooms, beauty salons and libraries. There are also significant differences in the cost of in-home care vs. assisted living: if home care costs $20 and a senior needs 50 hours of paid care, the annual nationwide average cost is $52,000, compared to $45,000 on average for assisted living.

Assisted Living Costs

Click here to learn more about assisted living costs

One of the first questions many families have about assisted living is “How much does it cost?” The answer can be surprising since assisted living doesn’t come cheap, with a national average monthly cost of $3,750. That rate can vary widely depending on the assisted living community’s location, the level of care a resident needs and the apartment size chosen within the facility. 

Despite the potential sticker shock at the cost of assisted living, it often pales in comparison to other types of senior care, such as in-home care or care in a skilled nursing facility.

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