What is the Difference Between an Assisted Living Community and a Nursing Home?

Learn more about assisted living and nursing homes

If you spent some uninterrupted time with a parent who is a senior during summer vacation, you may have noticed changes that leave you wondering how safe they are living alone. Families sometimes panic at the first signs of change in an older loved one and think a nursing home is the only solution.

Adult children are often unaware of another quality senior care option: an assisted living community.

We thought you might find it helpful to learn more about the similarities and differences between these two types of senior care.

A Comparison of Assisted Living and Nursing Homes

Let’s first talk about what these communities have in common.

One primary similarity is both provide residents assistance with what are referred to ADLs. The acronym stands for the Activities of Daily Living. They include personal care tasks such as grooming, bathing, dressing, and toileting.

Other similarities between assisted living and nursing homes include:

  • Support with Medication Management: Mistakes managing medication are one of leading reasons seniors are sent to emergency rooms everyday. It isn’t uncommon for older adults to take multiple medications each day. Remembering which ones to take when and how much to take can be a challenge.
  • Support with Daily Chores: Another reason adults make a move to a senior housing community is the need for help with everyday tasks such as laundry and housekeeping. As we age, these types of everyday activities become more difficult.
  • Transportation Services: Both types of communities usually offer in-house transportation. This allows older adults who no longer drive a safe, reliable way to get to and from the pharmacy, medical appointments and more.
  • Good Nutrition: Planning menus and cooking healthy meals can be a lot of work, especially when you are doing it for only one person. Both of these kinds of communities employ or contract with dieticians and chefs who are able to ensure seniors’ nutritional needs are met.
  • Wellness Programs and Life Enrichment Activities: Research shows that loneliness is now considered to be a serious health risk for seniors. It contributes to chronic health conditions such as diabetes, depression, obesity and high blood pressure. In addition to the socialization that comes from being surrounded by peers, residents of senior care communities have a wide range of daily enrichment and wellness activities to participate in.
  • Safe Environment: From step-free showers to grab bars, emergency call systems, and sturdy handrails, assisted living communities and nursing homes are designed with senior safety in mind.

Despite the number of similarities, however, there are some marked differences between an assisted living community and a nursing home.

How Assisted Living Communities Differ From Nursing Homes

The two most significant differences you will notice when you visit are the level of medical support provided and the physical plant.

Nursing Homes Residents Have More Complex Medical Needs

Unlike an assisted living community, residents of a nursing home typically live with more complex health conditions. They require around the clock supervision and support from skilled caregivers. Some also need services such as infusion therapy and respiratory care.

Seniors who reside in an assisted living community have different types of needs. Most require what is considered to be custodial care. This simply means they need assistance with the activities of daily living to safely maintain their independence.

For example, people with Alzheimer’s disease, adults who need help with toileting or continence care, and seniors with vision or mobility impairments typically find an assisted living community to be a good solution.

Assisted Living Communities Look More Like Apartment Communities

The physical difference between these two types of communities reflects the types of care each one delivers. Nursing homes usually have a more clinical appearance because they provide a higher level of medical care. Residents often share a room and a bathroom.

By contrast, an assisted living community feels and looks less institutional. These communities are more comparable to a nice apartment complex. Residents generally have their own apartment with a kitchenette, living area, bedroom and private bathroom.

Senior Living in the Pacific Northwest

To learn more about senior living communities in and around Seattle, please head over to the Retirement Living section of our Resource Center. You can explore local communities that offer services ranging from short-term rehab to specialized memory care.

Discussion25 Comments

  1. It’s interesting that nursing home residents generally have more complex medical needs than assisted living center residents. I think that assisted living could be a great option as it could provide the needed care even though the senior isn’t constantly sick. It’s something to keep in mind when looking at various facilities to ensure my mom can get what she needs.

    • admin

      Yes, there is a hierarchy of care and services available as we age. Assisted living communities can offer help and services that often extend independence and social engagement while removing some of the burdens of housekeeping and other chores. Older adults we’ve interviewed who have chosen to live in a retirement community have also shared that they feel safer and less vulnerable than they did living alone in a single family home.

  2. My mother is losing her memory and can no longer live on her own. Thanks for the advice about how good care communities are designed to feel like home and allow residents to pursue their passions. Hopefully, we can find a good place for my mom to live where we can visit her a lot.

    • Victoria Marshall

      Thank you for your comment, Louise. There are some excellent, caring, memory care communities in Western Washington. We wish you all the best in finding a great situation for your Mom.

  3. What a sobering statistic that medical management is a leading cause of seniors being sent to the hospital. I can see how having someone to help with that is beneficial. I’ve been helping my parents, but I think they may need slightly more care than I can provide.

    • Victoria Marshall

      You are not alone. It’s a big job and responsibility that many adult children face every day.

  4. Hey,
    Thanks for the informative post.I have always being confused regarding Assisted Living Facilities and a Nursing Home facilities.Your article helped me a lot to clear up my confusion regarding Assisted Living and Nursing Home facilities.There has been no of facilities of care and services available for Elderly. We do have talked to elder’s person who have chosen to live in a residential care home, they shared their feelings and told they feel independent, happy and homely atmosphere .Hope fully i will find best care facilities for my father to live and we can visit on daily basis.

    • Victoria Marshall

      We wish you luck on finding a good and convenient living situation for your father. Residential care homes can be great if you find a good one. Thank you for your post. VM

  5. It’s nice to see the differences between these two senior care options. We’re looking for a place for my mom, so this is great. My mom has some pretty complicated needs, so I think a nursing home would be best for her. Thanks for the clarifications.

  6. My grandmother likes to be independent so I think she will like an assisted living facility better than a nursing home. According to this article, assisted living is for seniors who need help with daily living. If I were to choose between assisted living and a nursing home I would probably choose the former to keep my independence.

  7. I’m glad that seniors who reside in an assisted living community have different types of needs and they can get the assistance they need and safely maintain their independence. My grandma has been having a really hard time living on her own, but she thinks she can’t have her independence if she goes to an assisted living community. I’m glad that she will be able to have her independence still if she goes.

  8. It might not have been summer vacation, but I did spend some time with my dad a couple weeks ago. It did leave me wondering how safe is he living alone, especially in years to come. I feel like he could even benefit from living in a retirement village.

  9. A good friend of mine was asking about assisted elderly living as an option for her loved one. I was going to help her look into what this would look like for her loved one. I think she would love knowing that there is a level of independence that is kept in these communities.

    • Victoria Starr Marshall

      Yes, most people still think of these communities as “old folks homes” yet there are wonderful, vibrant options out there. Thank you for your comment.

  10. It’s great to learn more about senior care differences. I like how you said that both assisted living and nursing homes offer activities that get them to socialize. To my mom, that is the most important part of finding a care service for her.

    • Victoria Starr Marshall

      Thank you for your comment, Ridley. Yes, social engagement is critical to our well-being as we age.

  11. I agree that seniors that live in a senior community have different types of needs. I think that senior care services should be implemented for those citizens that have severe health issues. My elderly neighbor is in rough condition, so I’ll make sure to contact a reliable service in order to help her out.

  12. I have a friend that is thinking about getting a retirement home for a loved one. She is worried about knowing what type of care her loved one may need. Looking for a place that would be able to care for her loved one extensively is nice.

  13. It’s interesting that there is also a lot of difference between a nursing home and an assisted living. You mentioned that in assisted living you just require assistance with the senior’s daily activity, unlike the nursing home which required around the clock supervision. My grandmother needs a lot of assistance in her daily chores as she is getting a week as time goes by. My mom is planning to avail the assisted living services.

  14. It makes sense that assisted living communities would design their spaces with senior safety in mind. My parents have been retired for fifteen years, and we’ve been talking about what they want to do with their property assets. They like the idea of moving to a senior living community, so we’ll have to see if there are any good ones nearby. Thanks for the info!

  15. I love what you said about finding a senior community that can plan menus and cook healthy meals. Moving your loved one to a senior community if they are struggling to take care of themselves. My friend wants to move his grandfather into such a community, so I’ll help him find the most reputable one in the area.

  16. Thank you for explaining how to differ an assisted living from a nursing home. It’s convincing to know that being alone for seniors could increase health risk. I believe that an assistive home is great for my wife’s mother that way she has company.

  17. Thank you for pointing out that a nursing home is dedicated to adults that have more complex medical needs. My siblings have been talking about having our mother live in an assisted living community. After reading your article, it seems that a nursing home would be a better fit because she has more complex medical needs. She would need the care of a skilled nursing team. I’ll have to reach out to my siblings and talk to them about the information I found here. I appreciate the time that you put into writing such a great article.

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