How to Choose an Independent Living Community to Call Home

Merritt Whitley
By Merritt WhitleyApril 13, 2021
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Moving to an independent living community is a major life decision. Finding the right place to call home takes time and research. So where do seniors and families start?

Independent living amenities and services vary widely. Most communities offer diverse activities, housekeeping services, healthy meals, and transportation. But each community has its own unique features, staff, and price tag.

As you consider options, reflect on your personal needs, wants, and lifestyle. “Make a list of your ‘must-haves’ and ‘would like, but can live withouts,’” says Shelane Barrett, national account manager at A Place for Mom. “Make sure the community you choose checks the boxes on your checklist, and doesn’t sacrifice anything on your ‘must-have’ list.”

Use this independent living checklist for seniors to help you determine which features and amenities are top priorities as you search for the best long-term fit. Plus, learn important questions to ask while touring communities.

Independent living checklist for seniors

When starting your search, think about your personal preferences as well as your health. For example, if you have trouble walking or using a wheelchair, a smaller community may be ideal, advises Barrett.

“Sometimes large communities can have long walks to the dining room or fitness center,” she says.

For active seniors who enjoy cooking their own favorite recipes, be sure to ask whether the apartment is equipped with a kitchen. If you’d like to bring a pet, ask about community pet guidelines.

A community’s ultimate goal is to provide seniors with worry-free and maintenance-free living. Top independent living features and amenities are designed to make life easier, but it’s important to evaluate how you can benefit from each service personally. Read through these common independent living features, and check off the services that matter most to you.

Ask about community engagement and social activities

The majority of communities create and share a calendar of independent living events and activities for residents on a weekly basis. Find out what activities are available and how often they occur.

Consider the following:

  • Do the activities seem fun, engaging, or aligned with your interests?
  • Does the activities director take individual residents’ likes into consideration?
  • Are you able to bring friends and family to activities?
  • Are some activities planned by residents, and can you help if interested?
  • Are there committees, clubs, or religious organizations you’d like to join?
  • Do activities change week by week?

Explore dining options

The majority of independent living communities provide three home-cooked meals a day, along with snacks and drinks. Request to see a sample menu, and ask these questions to learn more about dining options:

  • Do they cater to individual dietary needs, like low sodium or diabetic-friendly diets?
  • Is there an on-staff nutritionist or dietician?
  • Are meals served cafeteria-style, or at sit-down tables with wait staff?
  • What are the rules for cooking in resident apartments? Which appliances are provided?
  • Do they offer vegetarian or vegan options?
  • Can you invite friends and family to meals? If so, is there an additional cost?

See if transportation options fit your needs

Some older adults want to keep their cars and continue driving, while others are happy to maintain freedom without the hassles of vehicle maintenance and fuel expenses.

Consider the following to determine if the community’s transportation services are right for you:

  • Can residents keep cars in the community? How many parking spaces can be reserved per apartment, and are there additional fees?
  • What type of parking is offered? Outdoor lots, carports, or garages?
  • Is transportation to and from medical appointments offered by the community?
  • Are regular trips to stores and activities available? If so, how often and where?
  • Are community drivers specially licensed for group transport?

Ask about housekeeping and maintenance

A maintenance-free lifestyle is a huge plus of independent living. After 50 years of changing lightbulbs and shoveling snow, most seniors are ready for a hands-off experience! Regular or scheduled room cleanings, which can include vacuuming, dusting, providing fresh linens, and other convenient services, are also common in independent living communities. 

Ask the following to learn more about housekeeping and maintenance: 

  • Which laundry services are included? Does the community wash linens, but charge extra for clothing? What about dry cleaning?
  • How often is housekeeping available? Is it included in monthly rent, or paid for a la carte when needed?
  • Is trash pickup in the apartment, or will you need to move bins to the hall or curb?
  • How does lawn maintenance work? Are residents responsible for their personal outdoor spaces? If you love working outside, ask if the community allows residents to participate in planting beds or autumn raking.
  • What’s the policy on emergencies, like plumbing or electrical issues? Is someone on call 24/7?

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Check out community amenities

Are you a gardener, fitness buff, or someone who looks forward to their weekly poker night? Most communities offer amenities that cater to all walks of life. Whether you’re interested in salon services or swimming laps, ask about features that matter most to you. Some common amenities include:

  • Fitness center
  • Library
  • Computer room
  • Nail salon
  • Barber shop
  • Outdoor or indoor garden
  • Party, game, or entertainment room
  • Hot tub or lap pool

Evaluate essential safety features

Safety is a top concern on any independent living checklist for seniors. Ask staff if they have protocols planned for various situations, including power outages, natural disasters, and medical emergencies.

Although independent living communities don’t generally offer medical care, they should have precautions in place for potential falls and injuries. Walk-in showers, grab bars in bathrooms, and emergency buttons or pull cords are standard amenities. Some communities may also have motion sensors or fall-detection technology. On your tour, you can ask if the community offers:

  • Accessibility features for seniors to prevent falls
  • Security systems to eliminate break-ins
  • Emergency alert systems
  • 24-hour on-site staff in case of emergency
  • Natural disaster evacuation plans

Chat with community staff

Make a point to talk with staff on your visit. After all, you’ll be interacting with them every day once you move. It’s important to get a feel for how employees and leadership — the property manager or executive director — work together.

Ask staff:

  • Is the manager or director involved in residents’ everyday lives?
  • How do staff members communicate or manage emergency situations?
  • Are background checks performed during the hiring process?
  • Do staff members take extra time to get to know residents personally?
  • Is there a high or low turnover with staff?

Consider your budget

The cost of independent living is generally influenced by three key elements: location, room size, and services. The average monthly price of a senior apartment at Holiday Retirement – one of the nation’s largest independent living providers – was $2,491 in 2020. However, independent living communities can range anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 a month.

Price can also fluctuate based on supply and demand and the cost of living in your area. Be sure to create a budget and ask questions to determine potential costs:

  • What’s the exact price? How often does pricing change?
  • What’s included in the cost? What typically costs extra?
  • Are security deposits or administrative fees required upon move-in?
  • Are there renter’s insurance requirements or community maintenance fees?
  • How long is the lease? Does the price vary by length?
  • Are you offering any special deals or incentives?

Follow these expert tour tips

You’ll be able to tell a lot about a community at first glance. When touring a senior living community, look for signs that it’s thriving and operating well, Barrett suggests. Some things to look for include:

  • Friendly and welcoming staff members
  • Well-dressed and well-groomed residents
  • A clean building — especially restrooms and dining area
  • Engaged residents or people participating in activities
  • Happy and smiling faces

Ask to sit down and chat with residents, or see if you can join in on an activity. Residents who encourage a move to the community are a great sign!

Know you’ve found the right place to call home

With the right independent living community, you can ease into a happy, fulfilling, and chore-free lifestyle after your move to senior living. Once you’ve evaluated communities through virtual or in-person tours, Barrett recommends you:

  • Review your checklist. Does the independent living community meet the majority of your wants? Have they surpassed your expectations or fallen short in some areas on your checklist?
  • Trust your instincts. Do you feel at home in the community? Embrace your first impressions, and don’t ignore uneasy feelings.
  • Don’t settle – get in touch with an expert. If none of the communities you’ve toured feel like the right match—or if they haven’t met your “must-have” requirements—don’t settle without exploring all your options. 
Merritt Whitley
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Merritt Whitley

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