There are a lot of different types of over 55 communities — so many that it can be confusing to keep them all straight! More specifically, the nuances between a senior apartment, independent living with services, and independent living plus can be a bit unclear at first glance. Let’s take a closer look at how these types of over 55 communities differ.

The over 55 community concept

First, it’s important to note that virtually all senior living planned communities — including independent living with services, senior apartments, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), etc. — are 55+ communities.

Although 55 and older housing has been around since the 1950s, the rules for age-restricted senior living communities that are in place today  were established as a special carve out of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Fair Housing Act (FHA). The Housing for Older Persons Act (HOPA) protects senior housing communities from being sued for age discrimination by those who are under the community’s minimum age requirement.

For example, under HOPA, an over 55 community can mandate that a minimum of 80% of their community’s units must have at least one occupant who is 55 years of age or older. They are even legally permitted to deny residency to a senior who has custody of minor children.

There are some exceptions to HOPA, however, for seniors who are “associated” with a person with a physical or mental disability, such as a legal guardian of a disabled adult-child who does not meet the age requirement. In such a case, the community must make an exception to their minimum age policy to accommodate that disabled adult.

What about cases where one spouse or partner meets the age requirement for a 55 community, but the other doesn’t? Most 55 and over communities only require that one person residing within the household be at least 55, so if one spouse/partner does not meet the age requirement, it typically is not a problem.

There are, however, some senior living communities that have an even higher minimum age for residents at move-in, such as 62 or 65 years old. These communities with higher age minimums often have stricter rules around their age requirements. Oftentimes they require that everyone in the household must be at least 62 years old with the only exceptions being for live-in aides, nurses, or other healthcare providers.

>> Related: How Do Age Requirements Work at a CCRC or Other Senior Living Community?

Independent living senior apartments

The term “independent living” is applied to many different scenarios within the over 55 community realm, which can create confusion. In its truest sense, “independent living” means that a person is able to live on their own, i.e., “independently,” without needing assistance with activities of daily living. But the term also is applied to a type of senior living residence, such as in an age-restricted rental retirement community, where residents are able to live with few or no assistive services.

There are several different types of rental retirement communities, which are planned developments of apartments or patio home-style residences for seniors who are still able to live completely or mostly independently, without needing advanced levels of assisted living or daily healthcare services. Thus, these over 55 communities are considered “independent living” communities.

Senior apartments are one type of independent living rental retirement community, which function much like any other type of apartment complex, where residents live independently in their own unit. Things like exterior maintenance are provided by the community’s management, and there may be other communal amenities like a pool or clubhouse. A key distinguishing factor of senior apartments compared to other types of over 55 communities is the absence of a central dining area and meal plan.

If a resident of a senior apartment eventually requires some level of assistance, it would be up to them to arrange for caregiver services in their apartment or rely on the support of an unpaid family caregiver. If the resident were to get to the point where they required a higher level of care than could safely be provided within their senior apartment, they would have to move — such as to an assisted living community or skilled nursing facility that could support their care needs.

Senior apartments are typically one of the lower-cost types of over 55 community since there are no care or support services included.

>> Related: Senior Living Options: What Is a Senior Living Apartment?

Independent living with services

It’s important to know that many over 55 retirement communities do provide at least basic support services for their residents, if needed, such as assistance with dressing or bathing, but do not separate living units licensed for assisted living. Services such as housekeeping and laundry are typically provided, as well as a dining facility with meal plan options. These communities are often referred to as “independent living with services.”

Care services are commonly provided by a third-party caregiving service that the community has contracted with to provide services in residents’ independent living apartments, although some residents may hire their own in-house caregivers.

Independent living plus

A sub-category of independent living with services is a type of rental retirement community referred to as either independent living plus or IL/AL/Memory. (“IL” refers to independent living, and “AL” stands for assisted living. “Memory” denotes specialized memory care services.)

In independent living plus, the community may not only contract with outside, third-party caregivers to provide necessary help to seniors in their own residence within the campus, they may also have separately licensed on-site assisted living and/or memory care apartments.

These designated apartments that offer a higher level of care, or specialized care in the case of memory care services, are what set these independent living plus communities apart from regular independent living senior apartments or even independent living with services. However, it is important to know that most independent living plus communities stop short of offering an on-site healthcare center for skilled nursing and rehab. Again, if a resident were to require this higher level of care, they would likely need to move to a nursing care facility.

>> Related: CCRCs Help Avoid the “Senior Living Shuffle”

Which over 55 community is right for you?

In order to choose the over 55 community that meets your needs and your budget, it is crucial to educate yourself on the various options. And indeed, some people may decide that none of these communities is right for them — that they would prefer to remain in their existing home as they age.

But it’s important to keep in mind that none of us can predict the future. None of us knows what our lives, and more specifically our health, may look like down the road as we age. That’s why some people prefer to make a proactive plan that can accommodate any and all age-related health or mobility scenarios. This can be one of the driving forces that make some people opt for a continuing care retirement community (CCRC or “life plan community”).

A CCRC does provide independent living to residents who are able to live safely on their own. In fact, most CCRC contracts require that the resident must be healthy enough to live independently at move-in. However, should a resident require any level of care services — from assisted living to skilled nursing care — many CCRCs offer this full continuum of care- and often on the same campus. Access to a full continuum of care brings peace of mind for the resident and their family members. Yet, it’s also important to note that the definition of a CCRC can vary from one state to another, and you need to carefully read the residency contract to understand specifically what types of services will be available to you now and in the future.

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