Assisted living vs. nursing home: What’s the difference?

It’s a life-changing experience if the time comes when your mom or dad stops living at home and transitions into a senior living facility. Not only is it a complex decision with many practical details to consider, it’s also an emotional one.

Giving up full autonomy and independence is difficult for any person, and your mom and dad are probably no exception. There’s also a chance that the home your parent is leaving is a place of many memories, perhaps since you were a young child. This can make it even more difficult to say goodbye.

But there is some positive news during this transitional phase and it’s this: There are different senior living options, each with their own approach depending on the level of care (and type of care) that your mom or dad wants and needs.

Generally speaking, we tend to categorize senior housing into two broad groups: Assisted living facilities (retirement homes) and nursing homes (aka long-term care). While they might seem like the same thing, there are some important differences to understand between assisted living vs. nursing home.

Let’s take a closer look at the precise differences between these two types of facilities so you can help your parent make an informed decision that best suits their particular care needs and desires for this next stage of life.

Understanding Assisted Living Facilities

The major difference between assisted living facilities vs. nursing homes lies in the level of care that they offer. Assisted living means just that: Your parent is assisted with the activities of daily life.

Someone living in an assisted living community can, for the most part, still take care of themselves on a day-to-day basis. The staff is only there to help if the person needs it. The staff at an assisted living facility might help residents with activities of daily living including:

  • Preparing and cooking meals
  • Showering
  • Dressing
  • Taking medications
  • Doing laundry
  • Housekeeping

If the resident of an assisted living facility needs help with these things, they have it. If they don’t need help, they have the freedom to do it themselves. Couples are generally able to live together, and most residents in assisted living facilities dwell in their own living space, such as an apartment or condo, or in a private room.

Even though an assisted living facility is not a skilled nursing care facility, there is usually medical care available if your parent needs it. Most assisted living communities will employ a resident nurse and may even have an onsite health clinic. Emergency medical care is available at all times through the local hospital.

An assisted living facility’s main focus is on daily home care, allowing residents to live without constant supervision and providing a space for socializing with other residents.

Because of this, assisted living can be less disruptive to your parent’s “normal” routine and can offer some sense of community. It can provide an experience that might be a little more similar to the life your mom or dad may have already been living.

But for older adults who need a higher level of health care, a nursing home may have to be the route chosen.

Understanding Nursing Homes

Nursing homes — sometimes referred to as long-term care homes — offer a much higher level of personal and medical care for residents. Nursing home residents typically have more serious medical needs. They may also have physical or mental care needs that can’t be addressed properly at an assisted living facility.

The staff at a nursing home can help residents with all sorts of things, from day-to-day tasks to more complex medical care. These may include:

  • Medication management
  • Administration of medications
  • Rehabilitative care
  • Management of cognitive impairment conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease

If your mom or dad needs full-time attention from nursing professionals, a nursing home will ensure they have 24/7 care available, which is especially important if they have specific medical needs. However, it’s very important to understand that people can’t just decide to “sign up” for a nursing home. Eligibility must first be determined.

Of course, transitioning to a nursing home is also a decision that your parent will need to make based on their particular circumstances and desires. While your parents are still mentally capable, this would also be a good time to have discussions about advance care planning if you haven’t already.

Whether your parent lives in an assisted living facility or a nursing home, you can still visit them and spend quality time together. Assisted living facilities typically allow residents and their family members to come and go as they please. On the other hand, nursing home facilities will likely require visitors and loved ones to sign in at the front desk. They may also have particular visiting hours during which family members are allowed on the premises.

Paying for Assisted Living or Nursing Home Care

assisted living vs. nursing home

Another common question around the topic of senior living is that of cost. It’s difficult to give exact figures because the cost of both assisted living and nursing home care can vary widely by location and the facilities themselves. But there are a few general consistencies that can help guide your parent’s decision.

Most assisted living facilities must be paid for out-of-pocket. This can cost several thousand dollars per month, perhaps up to $4,000 a month or more. But residents and their adult children may be able to manage those costs with the help of options like long-term care insurance or veterans’ benefits.

The cost of a nursing home, unlike assisted living facilities, is set by the government. Nursing homes are closely regulated by the government, and they determine a person’s eligibility and the subsidy amount. Subsidies are always available and a person will not be denied a bed at a nursing home because they cannot afford the set monthly rate.

Regardless of who is paying for the senior care facility, you’ll want to do plenty of research to know exactly what you’re getting for your money. Cost and level of care can vary widely depending on the type of facility, the location, and the facility’s own processes and procedures.

Assisted Living vs. Nursing Home: What’s the Right Choice for Mom or Dad?

Having an open and honest conversation with your mom or dad about their wants and needs is the best way to determine what the best choice is when it comes to senior living options.

Things to consider are: your parent’s mobility, their ability to take medications properly, interest and ability to prepare meals, how easily they’re able to maintain their own personal hygiene, whether or not they’re capable they are of using the bathroom without any assistance, and any specific medical issues that they are dealing with.

For seniors who want independent living but may not be safe to live completely alone or unsupervised, an assisted living facility might be a good choice. This kind of facility will offer your mom or dad a chance to continue enjoying a more autonomous lifestyle with their own private space while some of their basic daily tasks — cleaning, preparing meals, doing laundry, etc. — are taken care of for them.

Those who need more extensive care services, including full-spectrum medical care, may need to consider a nursing home. Your parent will have access to the level and type of care they require while having a chance to interact with others in the long-term care facility, enjoy a sense of community, and engage in recreational activities.

Do you have past experience handling a parent or older adult’s transition into an assisted living facility or a nursing home? Are you and your mom or dad starting to consider this new transition? We’d love to hear from you.

6 thoughts on “Assisted living vs. nursing home: What’s the difference?

  1. Is there a funding program for a child of adult/senior parent, to leave their job in long term care to support full time in their home. Or live in the home and get visited for home care affordably to be at work?

    • Hi Janet,

      There isn’t a such a funding program. Your parent may be eligible for some home care-I would suggest asking for an assessment.

  2. Good day,

    I hope you are well.

    My mother has been diagnosed with early onset Dementia. She has deteriorated very fast. Doesn’t make appropriate decisions, she is not supposed to be drinking alcohol as she is bipolar, but she is still doing so.
    I want to start planning for getting a live in nurse to keep an eye on her.
    How much would that cost per month? and how does it work ?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi there Cathrine,

      I think the best thing would be to reach out, first, to your local health authority. I am sorry that because I don’t know your location, I can’t assist any further. If you provide this information, I can direct you to your local community. Thanks.

  3. To begin with, am I writing to a firm in the States? It seems many companies are actually owned by U.S. enterprises.
    We are looking for a place for mom. She is elderly and has Alzheimers. She needs a space where her medical needs are taken care of but enables her some autonomie. Also, it needs to be a secure environment, since she is still looking to go “home”.
    if this is a US site please acknowledge.

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