Five Differences Between Senior Living Communities and Nursing Homes/Skilled Nursing Facilities

If you hear the term “senior living” and think of a nursing home, you’re not alone. Yet, senior living communities are very different from nursing homes. It can be important to understand those differences if you are searching for the right living environment for yourself or your loved one. Once you know what each has to offer, you can decide which option is the right fit.

What is a nursing home?

A nursing home is also known as a skilled nursing facility. In this environment, seniors receive a wide range of health and personal care services. The main focus of a nursing home is to provide medical care, supervision and assistance with everyday activities. 

A nursing home can be a good option for someone who has recently been in the hospital. It is also a good option for someone with ongoing conditions who needs long-term skilled care. If you or a loved one requires around-the-clock care, a nursing home would be able to provide that.

What is a senior living community?

A senior living community is not a nursing home. Depending on the type of senior living community, different levels of support – and different levels of care – are available. All senior living communities are designed specifically for seniors, with their safety and needs in mind. And all types of senior living communities have the common goal of making life easier and less lonely for seniors. 

The focus of senior living communities is to provide a high quality of life for seniors and enable them to maintain their independence while having easy access to the services that may be necessary as they age. Senior living communities offer engaging activities, healthy meals and exercise programs. They also offer access to health and support services, and in some cases tailored care plans.

The different levels of care available at senior living communities include independent living, assisted living and memory care.

Five differences between a nursing home and a senior living community

1. The living environment

One of the main differences between a nursing home and a senior living community is the living environment.

Nursing homes offer a clinical setting for residents. Because of a nursing home’s focus on providing medical care, supervision and assistance, a nursing home’s living environment is more institutional. 

Senior living communities, on the other hand, offer a residential setting for residents. All types of senior living communities – from independent living to assisted living to memory care – provide a homelike, social atmosphere.

Some seniors will need the clinical environment of a nursing home, where they can receive constant, ongoing medical care and assistance. Other seniors will want a more relaxed senior living environment that prioritizes independence, social engagement and privacy. 

2. The level of available care

Before you decide, consider the difference in the levels of care available at nursing homes and at senior living communities.

Nursing homes have 24-hour licensed nursing staff who provide around-the-clock clinical care. Because nursing homes provide skilled nursing services, you will find more clinical-type services in this setting. Some examples of these services include:

  • IV therapy
  • Wound care
  • Diabetic management when a patient is not stable
  • 24-hour nursing supervision for medical needs

Because of the intensity of care often needed in a nursing home, there is more staff and a higher staff-to-patient ratio. 

A smiling assisted living resident is enjoying a meal with friends in a well-lit dining hall.

Senior living communities also offer excellent care, but at a different level than nursing homes. That is because residents of a senior living community don’t require the same level of care as those in a nursing home. Many communities have licensed nurses on staff, as well as other health care providers, to help with medication management and emergency first aid. These communities usually have 24-hour staffing and emergency response systems. However, not all states require caregivers at senior living communities to be licensed.

Senior living communities cannot provide clinical services like IV therapy, wound care and 24-hour nursing supervision. However, many communities offer on-site therapeutic services, home health care and hospice services.

For example, consider the types of services offered at assisted living facilities, which are a type of senior living community. They can provide support with everyday tasks like housekeeping, cooking and laundry. Caregivers are also on-site 24/7 to provide residents with support if needed. At an assisted living community, caregivers can provide services such as:

  • Medication management
  • Incontinence management
  • Mobility assistance around the community
  • Coordination of supplemental health care services, like physical or occupational therapy
  • Transportation to and from doctor appointments

Some assisted living communities also offer early-stage or mild dementia care.

Understanding the level of care you or a loved one needs can help you choose between a nursing home and a senior living community. Make sure your choice meets your needs, whether that is the need for skilled nursing care or for independence and social connection. 

3. The cost

Cost is a big consideration when choosing the best living option, and it can vary significantly between different areas of the country. However, there are some main differences in cost and financing options for nursing homes and senior living communities.

First, it’s important to understand that the level of care delivered to residents can greatly influence cost. For example, consider the cost difference between nursing homes, also called skilled nursing facilities, and assisted living facilities, which are senior living communities.

The average cost of privately paid skilled nursing is approximately $3,000 per month more expensive than assisted (senior) living. 

Keep in mind, however, that is an average. There are a lot of variables included in calculating cost, including not only the location and level of care, but also the lodgings themselves. For example, a private room in either case would be more expensive than shared accommodations.

Another factor to consider is that nursing homes are usually paid for by using Medicaid, long-term insurance, Medicare, Veterans Aid or private pay.

Most senior living communities do not accept Medicare, although some do. Senior living communities are usually private pay, which is also often referred to as “out of pocket.” Residents who qualify for the Veterans Aid and Attendance Program can usually receive their benefits while living in a senior living community. Some long-term insurance policies can also help with the cost.

Whether you choose a nursing home or senior living community, your costs may depend on a variety of factors. If you need help understanding your options, we suggest speaking with an advisor.

Get help finding the right senior living fit

Need help understanding your options? Our team of trusted advisors are here to answer your questions. They can help you determine the right level of care for you or a loved one. They can also discuss financing options and help you select a community that will fit your needs.

4. The level of privacy and independence

A senior living apartment bedroom with private room.

Your choice between a nursing home and a senior living community might also depend on how much privacy and independence you want.

Patients in a nursing home usually have a roommate and have little privacy. The door to the room stays open and staff members often go in and out tending to the needs of patients.

In senior living communities, residents enjoy more privacy and independence. Residents can choose to live in their own apartment which may include a kitchenette and private bathroom. Residents of senior living communities are encouraged to live as independently as they can. As a person’s needs change, care plans can be adjusted to meet those changing needs. This allows someone to stay in their home and community longer and to age in place.

5. The length of stay

A senior’s needs and circumstances will determine how long they stay either at a nursing home or a senior living community. In most cases, though, patients stay in a nursing home for less than a year. A resident’s time at a senior living community is generally longer and a more permanent residence. 

Many patients in a nursing home are recovering from hospitalization or a sudden decline in health. Their length of stay can be anywhere from several months to many years. Some make the move to an assisted living community after they have recovered from an injury or illness.

Senior living communities are designed to be a welcoming, comfortable and convenient place to call home for many years. As a resident’s needs change, so too can the levels of care and service they receive. A senior living community can give seniors the peace of mind of familiar surroundings, friends and neighbors as they age. Residents often choose a senior living community as where they want to age in place.

The differences between senior living communities and nursing homes include the environment, medical care, personal care, cost, privacy, independence and length of stay.

Get help finding senior living

Our team of trusted advisors can help you determine the level of care you or a loved one needs. After learning more about your unique needs, we can make recommendations and answer your questions. We can also set up a tour if Sonida Senior Living offers the type of care you need.

Sonida Senior Living communities include independent living, assisted living and memory care options. Our residents enjoy balanced and delicious meals served restaurant-style. They receive personal care services provided by passionate, dedicated and caring staff. Residents enjoy weekly laundry and housekeeping services, and can take advantage of scheduled transportation to medical appointments, activities and social outings. At Sonida Senior Living, our goal is to help seniors live their best life. 

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Shot of a young nurse caring for a senior woman
Shot of a young nurse caring for a senior woman

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