Independent Living vs. Assisted Living: What’s the Difference?

Exploring new living arrangements for yourself or aging loved one can be a bit overwhelming. You want what’s best — which means you’re likely searching high and low to discover the best possible fit. You’re likely going to run into various types of senior care options, housing, and living situations that you may not fully understand.

We’re going to help you on this difficult journey, guiding you through the differences between independent living and assisted living.

Senior living arrangements can be quite diverse, but it all lives on a spectrum. As the name implies, independent living gives seniors freedom and flexibility in their everyday lives — while assisted living offers additional support and assistive services that help seniors with daily tasks. Let’s dive deeper.

Living Areas

When looking around for the ideal space for your loved one, you’ll want to make sure it offers the right amount of freedom or support to ensure safe and comfortable living. Finding the right fit takes communication and research, so be diligent.

Independent Living

With independent living options, you’ll get a wide range of housing arrangements to choose from. Whether it’s apartment-style or housing co-ops, independent living offers more flexible options.
This style of senior housing comes in many names, and you may see it called:

  • Active adult community
  • Senior apartments
  • A retirement community or home
  • 55+ community

Typically, residents will have their own private living area with community spaces available for gatherings and social activities. Generally speaking, these communities will have amenities similar to apartments, townhouses, and small homes.

Assisted Living

The most popular type of assisted living housing is apartment-style with individual units having their own full kitchens. Assisted living arrangements will have a wide range of personalized care plans that you or your loved one can take advantage of for better living. Housekeeping and daily prepared meals are also common for assisted living facilities.

Care Services + Amenities

Both independent and assisted living arrangements offer residents care options and amenities that best fit their needs.

Independent Living

Independent living communities focus on making everyday life easier for their residents. Folks leave behind the headaches and hassles that come from home ownership to be freed up in order to live the active, vibrant life they envisioned in retirement.
Hands-on care isn’t a focal point for these communities, but rather centralized hospitality services for socialization. It’s more about creating an engaging and enjoyable living experience that removes everyday chores and responsibilities that may not be easy to complete for the aging residents.
However, there won’t typically be full-time medical staff or custodial care personnel available to independent living tenants 24/7.

Assisted Living

On the other side of the spectrum, assisted living care services aim to help those with activities of daily living (ADLs). These consist of everyday tasks like dressing, bathing, laundry, and taking medication. These communities have teams that work both day and night, with at least one medical professional, like a certified nurse practitioner, at the facility or on-call at all times.
However, most of the time, these staff members do not consist of intensive hands-on care personnel or skilled nursing for severe physical ailments or serious mental illness. Typically, families or care teams will collaborate with specialized staff to ensure that their loved ones are receiving these services — or perhaps look for a more restrictive or supportive living arrangement to manage these issues better.

Amenities for Both Independent & Assisted Living 

Recreation and social engagement play a big role in many senior living arrangements, as community-based activities promote a healthier lifestyle. So, you’ll likely see some of these popular amenities or activities:

  • Game nights
  • Card clubs
  • Exercise groups
  • Spiritual activities
  • Interactive technologies
  • Music
  • Support + discussion groups
  • Therapy
  • Continuing education
  • And more

Transportation services and shuttles are also common, helping residents go to shopping centers, movies, grocery stores, or doctor’s appointments.

Living Arrangement Costs

Both independent living and assisted living options have some upfront costs. However, there are some fairly drastic differences when it comes down to what you’re paying for and what you can use to cover these costs.

Independent Living Costs

Like most living arrangements, the primary cost for independent living is rent and utilities. There are typically various meal plan options as well, so depending on the type of add-ons or specialization, there could be additional payments here as well.

Assisted Living Costs

Most assisted living communities have base rates, which include rent, utilities, and some basic services like housekeeping or meal plans. Many residents at assisted living facilities require specialized care or one-on-one support that won’t be covered. These supplemental services are typically an in-house option for residents in both assisted living and independent living communities. Sure, the costs may increase, but it’s sometimes a far superior option than forcing a big move on your aging loved one that could end up costing even more in the long run.


One of the biggest differences between independent living and assisted living is how you can pay. Financial resources for aging residents are typically dependent on medical services. Since independent living communities don’t have medical services — they don’t qualify for Medicare, Medicaid, financial aid programs, or long-term care insurance providers. So, independent living expenses usually get taken care of using:

  • Social Security benefits,
  • Retirement savings
  • Pension income
  • Life settlements
  • Reverse mortgage funds
  • Annuities
  • Personal funds

Compared to independent living, there are far more options for covering costs with assisted living. Sure, residents can use all of the same options listed above, including Social Security or personal funds — but they’ll also have access to long-term care insurance policies and veterans aid programs. Unfortunately, Medicare doesn’t cover assisted living situations, but Medicaid does help some low-income seniors with financial aid. Medicaid assistance will depend on which state your loved one resides in, so make sure to do some research if you’re planning on using it to help cover some costs.

What’s Best for You or Your Loved One?

There’s no one size fits all answer to this question, as it really depends on the individual circumstances surrounding their living situation. If you know that your aging parent or loved one is struggling with day-to-day activities, but they’re perfectly capable of living alone without major safety or health concerns — independent living may be absolutely fine. However, if safety is a prime concern for why you’re considering senior living — and you believe medical professionals should be close-by, assisted living may be the right fit.

Don’t make an educated guess, be sure that you’re consulting with your loved one and their medical professionals to make the right call. When looking for the best option, ask questions, engage with staff, and be certain that it’s the safest and best possible living arrangement.