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

Two elderly women having coffee in an assisted living facility
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By: Claire Samuels, staff writer

Senior living communities come in many shapes and sizes, and there’s no universal approach for aging loved ones. Many people think of “senior living” and “nursing home” as synonymous, but over the past 30 years the terms have grown apart, and “nursing home” isn’t the senior care catch-all it used to be.

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 aging family member, and they selected a more moderate senior living environment.

So what are the different senior care types, and which fits your loved one’s needs? Let’s take a closer look at the differences between assisted living and nursing homes.

Comparing assisted living and nursing homes

Assisted living communities are a unique option for older adults who are mostly independent but require some assistance with day-to-day living. Nursing homes are generally designed for seniors who require 24-hour medical supervision due to physical or mental conditions that leave them unable to care for themselves.

What is assisted living?

Assisted living is a great housing choice for seniors who are no longer capable of living alone but want to maintain a social, active lifestyle. Considering these communities’ 93% satisfaction rate, it’s safe to say that assisted living isn’t what your aging loved one is picturing when they say they don’t want to move into “a home.”

Assisted living communities may offer:

  • Restaurant-style dining, happy hours, and activities based on resident interest
  • Outings and transportation to local stores, theaters, and museums
  • Help with laundry, housekeeping, and activities of daily living — like medication management, bathing, and grooming — that may become daunting to elderly loved ones
  • Suites with mini-kitchens, or larger apartments that allow couples to age together

The median cost of assisted living in the United States in 2019 was $4,051 per month. As you consider housing options for your aging loved one, you should also know that assisted living communities often have health standards for admitting new residents. For instance, one might have to be able to feed himself, or transfer between a bed and a wheelchair without assistance.

Who can benefit from assisted living?

Assisted living may be a good option for your aging loved one 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

What is a nursing home?

Nursing homes — also called convalescent homes, or sometimes skilled nursing facilities — are for seniors who require 24-hour monitoring and medical assistance.

Typical nursing home residents suffer from severe, debilitating physical or mental conditions that leave them unable to live independently. They may be bedridden, wheelchair-bound, or in need of daily skilled nursing care. Nursing homes always require a physician’s prescription and physical examination before accepting new residents.

The goal of a nursing home is to ensure the safety and comfort of older adults who need round-the-clock care. Nursing homes offer:

  • Ongoing palliative and preventative long-term care
  • Assistance with laundry, housekeeping, and activities of daily living
  • Prescription medication management and administration, including injections
  • Specialized rehabilitative services, such as speech, occupational, physical, respiratory, cognitive, and vocational therapy
  • Emergency and routine dental services in all state-funded nursing homes
  • Meal options that must meet the daily nutritional requirements and the unique dietary needs of each resident

Nursing home care can be expensive: the average cost in the United States in 2019 was $247 per day, or $7,512 per month. However, not-for-profit nursing homes can often be paid for using government assistance for lower-income residents.

Who can benefit from nursing home care?

A nursing home may fit the needs of elderly loved ones who:

  • Need constant care due to chronic conditions or deteriorating health
  • Can no longer feed themselves independently
  • Have experienced an injury and need significant rehabilitation
  • Prefer amenities like nutritious meals and on-site services like salons, religious services, and dental appointments that wouldn’t be available in a home-care setting
  • Desire more daily interaction than in-home nursing care would provide
  • Have progressive conditions like Parkinson’s disease or MS

How do I learn more about senior living differences?

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.