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Skilled Nursing Facility vs. Nursing Home: What’s the Difference?

By Stacey BurkeApril 26, 2021
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Many older adults need continued medical care and rehabilitation after a hospital stay. Whether your loved one is recovering from illness, injury, or surgery, skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes are two care options available to your loved one. Although the services provided by these facilities are similar and often overlap, there are a few key differences to know and understand.

What’s the difference between a nursing home and a skilled nursing facility?

The term “nursing home” is often used as a catch-all phrase for senior living, but nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities are different from other senior living options, such as assisted living. Both nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities offer the highest level of care for seniors who require 24-hour medical supervision but don’t require hospitalization.

What separates nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities from each other lies in the level of medical care provided, the staff on hand, and the duration of the stay.

Skilled nursing facility services: The highest level of care with a shorter stay

Skilled nursing care is the highest level of medical care you can receive outside of a hospital. It is provided by registered nurses (RNs) or other trained, licensed professionals, under the supervision of a doctor.

Skilled nursing care is designed for people of all ages who are transitioning out of the hospital or recovering from a serious medical condition or injury. The goal of skilled nursing care is to help patients recover from their illness or injury enough to require a lower level of care and assistance, or to recover completely. As such, most people only receive skilled nursing care for a short time. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the average stay at a skilled nursing facility (SNF) is 28 days.

Depending on where you live, your loved one may have access to skilled nursing care in a variety of settings, including:

  • At home. A home health agency can send a nurse or other licensed care provider to visit your loved one in their home, whether that be a family home, an apartment, or a room in an assisted living community.
  • In a skilled nursing unit of a nursing home. Many nursing homes and some assisted living facilities have skilled nursing units, wings, or floors. Some people choose to receive short-term skilled nursing at a nursing home for rehabilitation after a hospital stay. Long-term residents of a nursing home or assisted living community may receive skilled nursing care services after a hospital stay, or anytime they need extra medical attention.
  • In a standalone skilled nursing facility (SNF). These facilities provide short-term care only, primarily to people transitioning out of the hospital.

Common examples of skilled nursing care services include post-surgical care; pain management; wound care; catheter care; feeding tubes; respiratory aspiration; injections; heart rate and blood pressure monitoring; intravenous (IV) delivery of fluids, nutrients, blood, or medication; 24-hour emergency services; and other health services.

Skilled nursing facilities also provide regular access to physical, occupational, or speech therapists, and rehab programs for joint replacements, fall prevention, stroke recovery, and neurological conditions.

While under skilled nursing care, patients also receive help with personal care, meals, and medication management. Although at-home skilled nursing care is an option for some, many patients benefit from access to equipment that is more readily available in a facility, like patient lifts.

Nursing homes: Medical care for the long-term

Nursing homes provide care to seniors who have medical needs that affect their ability to live independently for the long term. The typical nursing home resident has a serious health condition that requires specialized medical care on a regular basis, like time-sensitive medications, 24-hour monitoring, and significant assistance with feeding, mobility, and transfers.

Other nursing home services include assistance with activities of daily living — like bathing, toileting, and dressing — as well as housekeeping, meals and dietary counseling, and social and recreational activities.

In nursing homes, care is most often provided by licensed practical nurses and nurse aides under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN). These professionals are trained on the basic principles of nursing and serve as a patient’s primary caregiver. Because they have extensive interactions with the residents, they play a key role in keeping the supervising nurse up-to-date on vital information regarding patients’ conditions.

Most nursing homes also have skilled nursing units that provide 24-hour emergency services and care when long-term residents need extra medical attention.

Talk with a Senior Living Advisor

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

Skilled nursing vs. nursing home: Which is right for my loved one?

In order to receive care from either a skilled nursing facility or a nursing home, your loved one will need a doctor’s order. This order — much like a prescription — documents your loved one’s medical needs and confirms that they meet state requirements for nursing home or skilled nursing facility admission.

Once you have a doctor’s recommendations for the level of care and length of stay required, you are generally free to choose from the various skilled nursing services or nursing homes in your area. As you consider your options:

  • Look for the best fit. Visit each facility you’re considering, and ask questions about the services, amenities, staffing, and care plans.
  • Consider costs. The cost of care at either type of facility will vary according to your loved one’s needs and your location. However, skilled nursing and nursing home care costs are typically higher than other types of care.
  • Research ways to pay for care. Federal or state programs that help you pay for care include Medicare for short-term stays and, if eligible, Medicaid or veterans benefits for long-term care.


Medicaid Planning Assistance. “Medicaid Coverage of Nursing Home Care | When, Where and How Much They Pay”


Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “Medicare Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) Transparency Data (CY2013)”


Stacey Burke

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