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Assisted Living vs. Nursing Homes: What’s the Difference?

Written by Claire Samuels
9 minute readLast updated May 18, 2021

Assisted living communities are not nursing homes, though many people think of them as the same. Over the past few decades, these two types of senior living have grown distinctly different. Nursing home is no longer the senior care catch-all term it used to be.

Key Takeaways

  1. Nursing home isn’t a catch-all term. It doesn’t accurately describe every type of senior living, including assisted living.
  2. Assisted living communities are for generally active seniors. They help with daily tasks like bathing and dressing while cultivating an engaged, social lifestyle.
  3. Nursing homes serve people with more serious medical issues. They provide the highest level of health care outside of a hospital setting.
  4. The monthly costs are different. Nursing homes cost significantly more than assisted living due to the higher level of care they provide.

In fact, A Place for Mom surveyed 100 families who contacted us seeking “nursing homes” for their relatives. After consulting with our Senior Living Advisors, 89 of those families determined that a nursing home wasn’t the right choice for their loved one. They ended up selecting a more social, communal senior living environment instead.

So what’s the main difference between assisted living and nursing homes?

Assisted living communities provide a more social lifestyle for seniors who are generally active but need help with everyday tasks. Nursing homes provide long-term medical care for adults with serious health issues. Nursing homes usually cost more than assisted living due to the higher level of care.

What is assisted living?

Assisted living is an ideal option for seniors who can no longer live alone but want to maintain a social lifestyle. Assisted living communities provide long-term housing for older adults who are generally active but need support with activities of daily living (ADLs). These could include bathing, dressing, using the toilet, and managing medications.

Additionally, assisted living cultivates a strong sense of community. While residents can find privacy in their apartments, they’ll usually eat together in the dining room. Throughout the month, staff members typically organize activities, entertainment, and outings.

What is a nursing home?

Nursing homes serve seniors and others who require full-time monitoring and medical assistance. These facilities offer the highest level of care for individuals who don’t require hospitalization.

Elderly adults who need long-term care at a nursing home often have severe physical or cognitive health conditions that require 24-hour nursing. They may be bedridden or need to use a wheelchair with the assistance of staff members.

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How do services in assisted living and nursing homes compare?

A diagram that displays the differences between assisted living and nursing homes

Assisted living communities offer services and amenities to keep residents as healthy, socially engaged, and independent as possible. While nursing homes also focus on these areas, they offer around-the-clock medical care to treat more serious health issues.

Skilled nursing care is a key feature of many nursing homes. That means trained medical professionals are available at all times to assist your loved one. If your family member has a serious medical condition, they likely need specialized care from licensed health care professionals at a skilled nursing facility. Assisted living senior care aides are highly trained but may not be medically certified.

Assisted living services and amenities could include:

  • Restaurant-style dining and happy hours
  • Transportation and outings
  • Social activities tailored to residents’ interests
  • Laundry, housekeeping, and maintenance
  • Assistance with activities of daily living and medications
  • Apartments with mini-kitchens and bathrooms

Nursing homes may offer services such as:

  • Ongoing palliative and preventative long-term care
  • Prescription medication administration, including injections
  • Specialized rehabilitative services, such as speech, occupational, physical, respiratory, cognitive, and vocational therapy
  • Emergency and routine dental services
  • Meal options that must meet the daily nutritional requirements and the unique dietary needs of each resident, including pureed and liquid diets
  • Increased safety features and security benefits, including grab bars, ADA-accessible spaces, and alarmed doorways

Will my loved one benefit from assisted living or a nursing home?

A diagram that displays the differences between who an assisted living and nursing homes

Assisted living communities benefit seniors who are generally active but need some assistance with daily tasks. If an elderly loved one develops chronic or debilitating health problems, then nursing homes will benefit them more. The higher level of care offered in a nursing home versus an assisted living community makes it an ideal choice by providing medical care in addition to companionship, help with ADLs, and on-site amenities.

Assisted living may be a good option for someone who:

  • Requires minor nursing assistance but doesn’t need full-time medical care
  • Needs help with daily activities like dressing and bathing
  • Is interested in a maintenance-free lifestyle without lawn care or home repairs
  • Desires an active life but doesn’t have access to transportation
  • Is looking for new friends or social activities
  • Is currently in good health but knows they’ll need more help soon

A skilled nursing facility is an ideal choice for seniors who may:

  • Require constant care due to chronic conditions or deteriorating health
  • Be unable to feed themselves independently
  • Have significant mobility concerns
  • Have experienced an injury or fall and need significant rehabilitation
  • Have progressive conditions, like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
  • Require regular injections for diabetes or other conditions

How do entry criteria for nursing homes and assisted living differ?

Nursing homes and assisted living have different criteria. While assisted living communities could require residents to meet certain health standards and abilities, nursing homes usually have entry requirements to show the patient requires a higher level of care.

For instance, assisted living communities may require that your loved one be able to eat independently or transfer between a bed and a wheelchair without assistance. They also might not accept residents with severe cognitive impairment or behavioral issues.

On the contrary, seniors need to meet the state’s criteria to enter a nursing home. This might involve getting a physical assessment and a physician’s order.

What's the difference between assisted living and nursing home costs?

A diagram that displays the difference in cost between assisted living and nursing homes

The median monthly cost of assisted living was $4,500 in 2021, compared to $7,908 for a semi-private room at a nursing home and $9,034 for a private room.[1]

Nursing home and assisted living costs vary by community, location, and services offered. The difference in cost between assisted living and nursing homes is significant because assisted living communities don’t offer full-time medical care.

However, unlike many assisted living communities, nursing homes can often be paid for using government assistance for lower-income residents.

Talk with a Senior Living Advisor

Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.

How do you decide which type of senior living is best?

In the past several decades, senior living choices have expanded as the needs and expectations of older adults have changed. Finding the right option that meets your loved one’s needs is an important part of keeping them healthy, active, and safe.

The best way to decide which care type is best for your loved one is by talking to those with experience in deciding between these care types. At no cost, A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors can guide you through the many senior living options to help you find the best fit for your family.


  1. Genworth. (2022, June 2). Cost of Care Survey.

Meet the Author
Claire Samuels

Claire Samuels is a senior copywriter at A Place for Mom, where she helps guide families through the dementia and memory care journey. Before transitioning to writing, she gained industry insight as an account executive for senior living communities across the Midwest. She holds a degree from Davidson College.

Edited by

Danny Szlauderbach

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