What do you think when you hear the term “independent living”? This phrase seems to have different connotations for different people, creating confusion. Even within the senior living industry, it gets applied to a pretty wide range of living and care situations.

Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of “independent living” and how this nomenclature is applied to different senior living and care scenarios.

Seniors living “independently” in their own home

One way that the term “independent living” is used is to describe a senior who is still living in their own home, outside of a 55+ community. In some cases, this means the person requires no assistance of any kind. They are able to maintain their home, including keeping up with financial matters, and they need no help with their personal activities of daily living (ADLs) like bathing, dressing, or eating.

In other cases, however, people use the term “independent living” simply to mean avoiding a move to assisted living or a nursing home. In these instances, the senior is technically living “independently” — in the sense that they are living independent from a nursing home, for example — but they still require care services to help keep them there.

For some situations, those care services can be fairly minor — maybe the person needs a little help with food preparation or medication management. This is essentially the equivalent of the type of help they would receive if they were to move to an assisted living community.

Other times, however, the in-home care needs can be extensive, up to and including the need for a full-time home-health aide. Because this occurs within the senior’s own private residence, some may still describe the person as living “independently” because they are not in a congregate setting. But in reality, this is still a very “dependent” situation.

>> Related: A New Case for the Continuing Care at Home Model?

Independent living, CCRC style

By definition, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, or life plan communities) provide their residents with a continuum of care services if and when they are needed, typically up to and including skilled nursing care.

In a CCRC, residents in the independent living portion of the community typically reside in apartment units or patio-style homes. Many are living truly independently, without the need for any assistance with ADLs, and still leading active lives. In fact, most CCRC contracts specify that residents must meet certain health requirements in order to move in, including not requiring any substantive assistance.

However, some residents within these independent living units may need a little bit of extra help — perhaps they could use a hand with personal care or ensuring they take their medicine at the right time. In such cases, this type of care can still be provided within the resident’s existing unit, enabling them to remain in their current residence for as long as possible.

If a resident’s care needs progress and become more advanced, however, they may need to make a move within the community. Residents who require more extensive caregiving will relocate either to the assisted living portion of the CCRC or even to the on-site skilled nursing facility.

>> Related: Who Decides if a CCRC Resident Needs a Higher Level of Care?

Rental retirement communities and “independent plus”

Further blurring the definition of “independent living,” the term can have additional nuance for those residing in a rental retirement community.

Rental retirement communities are usually apartment-style planned developments for seniors who live completely independently, or at least mostly so, without the need for advanced levels of assisted living or daily healthcare services.

Most of these communities do provide at least a basic level of support for residents, however, often in the form of daily assistance offered in the resident’s apartment when needed and provided by a contracted third-party caregiving service. For this reason, many of these communities will refer to themselves as “independent plus,” meaning residents may have some care needs buy are still considered to be living independently in their own apartment — a similar scenario as occurs in CCRCs.

Put another way, “independence” within a rental retirement community is largely based on where the person lives and their ability to live as independently as possible, even when it requires some care services. Because of this blurred line, rental retirement communities are sometimes confused with assisted living communities, though the services offered may fall short of requiring licensing as an assisted living provider.

Increasingly, however, rental retirement communities are adding separate, licensed assisted living and/or memory care apartments. Most stop short of offering an on-site healthcare center for skilled nursing and rehab.

>> Related: Comparing Rental Retirement Communities and Life Plan Communities

Defining the “independent living” concept

As you can see, there is a lot of ambiguity around the term “independent living” within the senior living industry and even among seniors themselves. The phrase sometimes implies an active and independent lifestyle, free of the need for any assistance with daily needs. Sometimes the person may live in their own home; other times they may live in the independent living portion of a retirement community.

In certain instances, “independent living” may be used to describe a senior who is living on their own or within a senior living community (in a CCRC or rental retirement community) who is receiving the caregiving services they need in order to remain as independent as possible, for as long as possible, in their existing home. Essentially, they are able to avoid the need to move to assisted living or a nursing home.

To draw a distinction between those who need a hand with activities of daily living (or nursing care) versus those who do not require any help, some communities have added in the clarifying term “active adult” to their lingo to denote those residents who are truly living independently and need no assistance.

As you consider various senior living options, it’s important to seek clarification about what a community means when they say “independent living” and exactly what care services are available to residents without the need to move or relocate to a different portion of the community.

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