Many older adults need continued medical care and rehabilitation after a hospital stay. If your loved one is recovering from an illness, injury, or surgery, skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes are two options available to provide the extra care they need. A skilled nursing facility is ideal for short-term support, while nursing homes offer long-term residential care. The services provided by these facilities are similar and often overlap, but there are a few key differences to understand.
Skilled nursing care is the highest level of medical care you can receive outside of a hospital. It’s provided by registered nurses (RNs) or other trained, licensed professionals under the supervision of a doctor.
Skilled nursing care can be provided in many settings, including skilled nursing facilities, nursing homes, senior rehab facilities, or even in the comfort of a patient’s own home. Both nursing homes and stand-alone skilled nursing facilities offer round-the-clock care for seniors who need 24-hour medical supervision but don’t require hospitalization.
What separates nursing homes and stand-alone skilled nursing facilities, also called rehabs, from each other is the level of medical care provided, the staff on hand, and the duration of the stay.
Because skilled nursing care is designed to help your loved one recover after a serious illness, injury, or surgery, providers offer all the assistance needed to aid in that recovery. Common examples of skilled nursing care services include:
Care teams provide regular access to physical, occupational, or speech therapy, as well as assistance with fall prevention, joint replacement rehabilitation, and cognitive support.
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’s more readily available in a facility.
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Skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) are designed for patients transitioning out of the hospital, people recovering from a serious condition or injury, or anyone in need of constant supervision and assistance for medical reasons. The goal of skilled nursing care is to help patients recover enough to care for themselves or to be able to transition to a less intensive senior care option.
Stand-alone facilities that provide exclusively short-term skilled nursing care are residential, but they aren’t designed for long-term inhabitants. As such, most people only receive skilled nursing care in designated SNF for a short time. These short-term stays can also take place in designated wings or beds within larger nursing homes. The average stay at a skilled nursing facility is 28 days.
While the term “nursing home” is often used as a catchall term for any type of senior living setting, nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities actually provide a higher level of care than other options like independent living or assisted living.
Nursing homes provide care to seniors who have medical needs that affect their ability to live independently. The typical nursing home resident has a serious health condition that requires regular or frequent specialized medical care, like time-sensitive medication management, 24-hour monitoring, or significant assistance with feeding, mobility, urinary or fecal incontinence, and transfers.
As of 2019, the average length of a nursing home stay was 485 days, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
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 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 services and care when long-term residents need extra medical attention.
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To receive care in either a nursing home or stand-alone rehab facility that offers skilled nursing care, your loved one will need a doctor’s order. This order, much like a prescription, documents a senior’s medical needs and confirms that they meet state requirements for nursing home or skilled nursing facility admission.
There may be different requirements for short-term versus long-term admission. For example, to access short-term rehab in a nursing home or skilled nursing facility, a senior may need only to be recovering from an illness, surgery, or injury. But to secure a long-term residential stay, a person may have to require help with a minimum number of activities of daily living or assistance with a chronic condition.
Once an individual has a doctor’s recommendation for the level of care and length of stay required, they’re generally free to choose from the various skilled nursing services or nursing homes in their area.
When navigating which option is the right choice for your loved one, consider the following:
After your loved one has recovered from their illness or injury enough to require a lower level of care, you may consider longer-term senior living options to help keep them safe, social, and engaged. Reach out to one of A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors for more information about long-term senior living types. They can guide you through the senior living search process, discuss budget and needs, and even schedule tours with local communities — all at no cost to your family.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (2022, January). Nursing homes including rehab services.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019, February). Long-term care providers and services users in the United States.
The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.
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