Assisted Living vs. Home Care: What’s the Difference?

Elderly woman having meal served to her by home care nurse
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By: Claire Samuels, staff writer

Determining the best senior living situation for an aging relative is a challenge most families have to face. Some start to explore assisted living or other senior living options as their loved one’s health declines, but a great number of seniors prefer to remain at home despite physical difficulties.

For most families, there’s a threshold — an event that makes the need for additional care clear. Whether it’s a fall, a diagnosis, or cognitive decline, this change makes living at home alone impossible for some older adults.

The safety of your loved one is the highest priority in these urgent situations, but it’s important to think about other factors like lifestyle, care needs, and cost when determining next steps.

Home care and assisted living are two potential solutions to consider for aging relatives who can’t remain in their homes alone but want to maintain their autonomy.

What is home care?

Home care provides compassion and help for seniors who need assistance with daily activities and wish to remain in their homes. Levels of care vary by need and can span from weekly meal prep to incontinence help. Home care aides are trained to understand the nuances of senior care but are generally not licensed to provide medical services. Home care services include:

  • Companionship, including reading aloud, chatting, and in-home activities
  • Transportation to appointments
  • Assistance with daily tasks like dressing, bathing, and grooming
  • Meal preparation or delivery, paid for by the senior
  • Cleaning and organizing the home
  • Help with bills, financial management, and correspondence

Who can benefit from home care?

  • Loved ones who want to remain in their homes despite health and mobility changes
  • Seniors who need help with activities of daily living (ADLs), from dressing to using the restroom
  • Elderly people who require transportation to and from activities and medical appointments
  • Loved ones who would like help with cooking, cleaning, and other household responsibilities
  • Seniors who need companionship or feel isolated at home

Would your loved one benefit form home care?

Consider these questions to determine if in-home care is the right choice for your loved one:

Is there an affordable way to improve the safety of the home?

Is everything your loved one needs on one level, or will you have to install a stair lift? Is their bathroom accessible, or will the shower require modifications? Some homes only need grab bars or a wheelchair ramp, while others require complete overhauls to be safe and accessible for seniors.

Is remaining at home a top priority?

Many seniors have lived in their homes for decades and can’t imagine leaving. If the house is safe and accessible, hiring a home care provider is an excellent way to maintain your loved one’s quality of life as they age in place.

Does your loved one want a quieter lifestyle?

Some seniors are happy and healthy with limited interaction and would prefer to be at home with a book than out and about. In this case, the companionship of a home care aid is a great way to satisfy social needs. If you believe your loved one would be lonely without more interaction, consider adding activities at a senior center or transitioning to assisted living.

What is assisted living?

Assisted living is ideal for seniors who are no longer capable of living alone but want to maintain a social, active lifestyle. Like home care, assisted living provides help with everyday activities. It’s important to note that many assisted living communities, unlike nursing homes, have health standards for admitting new residents. Assisted living communities may offer:

  • Restaurant-style dining, happy hours, and activities based on resident interest
  • Friendship and socialization with other seniors
  • Outings and transportation to local stores, theaters, museums, and appointments
  • Help with laundry, housekeeping, and activities of daily living — like medication management, bathing, and grooming — that may become daunting to elderly loved ones
  • Apartments designed for seniors with safety and accessibility in mind

Who can benefit from assisted living?

Assisted living may be a good option for a person who:

  • Needs minor nursing assistance or medication but doesn’t require 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
  • Wants to pursue their passions, like golf, art, or religious studies, in a specially focused lifestyle community
  • Is currently in good health but knows they’ll need more help soon

Is assisted living the right choice for your loved one?

While many seniors would prefer to stay at home, others could benefit from communal living. Ask these questions to see if assisted living is the right choice for your family:

Is your loved one lonely?

Isolation is a significant health concern in the senior population. Loneliness continues to lead to chronic illness, sensory impairment, and increased early mortality, according to a 2020 social isolation study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Senior living communities provide many opportunities to engage in activities with others.

Does your aging relative want to maintain an active lifestyle?

Assisted living communities offer social activities and events like game nights, cooking classes, exercise programs, and happy hours. Many also schedule outings to local museums, theaters, casinos, or shopping centers. These amenities are especially helpful for seniors who want to remain active but can no longer drive.

Does your loved one want to be maintenance-free?

Aging at home requires commitment to household chores and tasks. At an assisted living community, your loved one will benefit from housekeeping, prepared meals, and effort-free landscaping — no need to worry about calling a plumber or replacing a leaky roof.

Combining care options

Sometimes, loved ones need assistance with activities of daily living, companionship, and medical care. Whether your aging relative chooses to transition to senior living or remain at home, a combination of care types could be necessary. It’s important to note that “home health” is a catch-all for health care services that come to you whether you live in a house or apartment or at a senior living community.

Combining assisted living and home health

If your loved one needs extra medical help or physical therapy but also wants to enjoy communal living and stay active and engaged, a combination of assisted living and home health could be ideal.

Assisted living communities offer medication assistance, routine wellness checks, and medical staff in case of emergency, but they don’t generally include continuing clinical care. For instance, a nurse at an assisted living community could provide blood pressure medication but not daily dialysis.

For additional medical help, assisted living communities will recommend outside home health agencies. The home health professional will come for scheduled appointments at your loved one’s convenience. Your relative will receive companionship and help with activities of daily living from assisted living staff, but clinical therapy, injections, or routine medical treatments will come from home health professionals.

Combining home care and home health

If your loved one chooses to stay in their house, a combination of home care and home health can ensure that they remain both emotionally and physically healthy. Home care offers nonclinical help — such as meal prep, activities of daily living, and companionship — while home health provides professional medical assistance.

A doctor can prescribe home health to your aging relative as part of their continued care routine. The home health aide will assist with clinical medical needs that home care isn’t able to provide.

Paying for assisted living vs. home care

The median cost of assisted living in the United States in 2019 was $4,051 per month.* Assisted living is generally all-inclusive, while home care options are paid hourly or per service. If your loved one only needs assistance a few hours a week, home care may be a less expensive option to ensure their safety. If they require full-time help, assisted living is more affordable than round-the-clock home care.

*all figures were collected from the most recent American Housing Survey or Cost of Care Survey from insurer Genworth Financial. These prices are United States national averages, and will vary based on location.

A Place for Mom created this chart to help you figure out whether assisted living costs more or less than living at home. The sample figures cited below represent U.S. national averages, so please fill in your loved one’s actual monthly costs in the spaces provided, as well as figures for a specific community you may be considering:

Assisted living vs. home care cost comparison chart

Making the right senior living choice for your loved one

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. 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.