What is senior housing?

Whether you are a senior thinking about your retirement and beyond or an adult looking for living arrangements for your parents, making the right choice about senior housing can be daunting. Our senior living guide will help you understand your options so you can make the perfect decision for yourself or your parents.

In this guide:

  1. Understanding senior living
  2. For active seniors
    1. Retirement communities
    2. Continuing care retirement communities
    3. Independent living facilities
    4. Senior housing apartments
    5. Senior cohousing
    6. Faith-based retirement communities
    7. Armed forces retirement home
  3. For seniors who need some assistance
    1. In-home senior care
    2. Assisted living community
  4. For seniors who need lots of assistance
    1. Nursing home
    2. Memory care home
  5. What to look for when choosing a senior community
  6. Checklist: What to watch for on your tour
  7. How to pay for senior housing
  8. How to find senior rentals
  9. Other resources

Understanding senior living

There are many options for senior living, each with its own level of care, independence and costs. The right choice will depend on a variety of factors, including current health, financial resources and the kind of lifestyle you’re seeking.

Below is a general overview of the different types of senior communities. Keep in mind that even within the same type of community, there is no hard-and-fast definition (for example, every continuing care retirement community will offer different amenities). It’s important to ask questions and make sure you understand exactly what the community you’re considering has to offer. Whether you prefer to rent or buy, you’ll have plenty of choices.

For active seniors

Seniors who can still live independently can choose from the following types of senior communities.

Retirement communities

  • What they are/Who they are for: Active seniors who don’t need assistance with daily living but want to live with other seniors. They’re generally age-restricted, typically requiring at least one resident to be age 55+. Units may be single-family homes, condominiums or manufactured housing — depending on the community, seniors may have an option to buy rather than rent.
  • What’s included: Common area maintenance, amenities such as pools, golf courses, tennis courts and clubhouses. Communities may sponsor organized events and activities or offer transportation to offsite events.
  • Average cost: Just as with buying or renting any home, prices vary widely depending on location, home size and finishes. There are also association fees for common area maintenance and amenities.

Continuing care retirement communities

  • Who they are for: Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) allow seniors the option to move once and then stay in place for the rest of their lives. Seniors must be independent in order to rent in the community. As they need more care, they can transition into the community’s assisted living, nursing home or memory care facilities.
  • What’s included: Medical services, meals, housekeeping, security/emergency alert system, recreational activities and transportation. CCRCs may also include amenities such as a fitness center, pool and tennis courts.
  • Average cost: One-time entrance fees average $320,000; monthly fees average $3,266. Entrance fees may be refundable upon residents’ death. If the steep entrance fee is beyond your budget, look for a CCRC that offers a rental option. In this model, which is becoming increasingly popular, residents pay a monthly rental fee that includes both rent for the unit and the cost of their care. In both types of CCRCs, fees rise as residents use more services or move into more intensive levels of care. Learn more about CCRCs.

Independent living facilities

  • What they are/Who they are for: Seniors who don’t need assistance with daily living but want to live with other seniors in multi-family units (apartments or condominiums) and gain access to services.
  • What’s included: Property maintenance of common areas such as pools, gym rooms or meeting rooms. May include dining facilities, housekeeping, transportation and social activities.
  • Average cost: As of 2018, median monthly cost was $2,552.

Senior housing apartments

  • What they are/Who they are for: Rental apartment communities designed for seniors who don’t need help with activities of daily living. Generally restricted to age 55+ or 62+ per HUD regulations.
  • What’s included: May include housekeeping, community dining room, transportation, social activities and common areas.
  • Average cost: Can range from luxury apartments to public housing units designed for low-income seniors. Section 8 vouchers or reduced rental rates may be available.

Senior cohousing

  • What they are/Who they are for: Cohousing communities generally feature single family homes centered around a common building for socializing. They’re run by residents and often based around a common interest. Best for independent seniors who want a more communal lifestyle.
  • What’s included: Common area maintenance. Residents often share cooking duties, socialize together and support each other.
  • Average cost: Home purchase and rental prices for senior cohousing vary widely depending on location, home size and finishes. Residents generally pay association fees for common area maintenance and amenities.

Faith-based retirement communities

  • What they are/Who they are for: Faith-based facilities for independent seniors who want to live with others of their religious faith. These communities are available for a range of needs, from independent living to assisted living or nursing home care.
  • What’s included: Amenities may vary widely, but such communities are differentiated by on-site religious activities such as worship services, religious study groups and prayer meetings, meals that conform with religious dietary restrictions and the presence of religious leaders to provide guidance to residents.
  • Average cost: Varies widely depending on the level of care provided. In general, a faith-based retirement community will have similar costs to a comparable non-religious community.

Armed forces retirement home

  • What they are/Who they are for: These continuing care retirement communities are for retired military veterans 60+ who can live independently. There are two locations: Washington D.C. and Gulfport, MS.
  • What’s included: Onsite medical services, all meals, fitness center, movie theater, bowling center, library, art studio, security/emergency alert system, recreational activities, trips and transportation.
  • Average cost: Monthly fee is based on a percentage of retiree’s total income that ranges from 46.7 percent for independent living to 70 percent for memory care.

For seniors who need some assistance

Seniors who are starting to have difficulty living independently should consider the following alternatives.

In-home senior care

  • Who it is for: In-home senior care services send caregivers to assist seniors who prefer to age in their own homes. These may be fairly independent seniors who just want help with things like housecleaning or getting to doctors’ appointments or seniors who need help with activities of daily living.
  • What’s included: Non-medical or personal care services may include light housekeeping, cooking, transportation and assistance with activities of daily living such as bathing and dressing. In-home nursing care provides medical services such as giving seniors medications, providing physical therapy or monitoring a chronic condition.
  • Average cost: State averages range from $16-$28 per hour — the national average is $21 per hour. Costs vary widely depending on the level of service needed and whether it’s obtained through an agency or privately. Insurance may cover some or all of the costs of in-home nursing care.

Assisted living community

  • What they are/Who they are for: Apartment-style communities for seniors who don’t need the level of care a nursing home provides, but do need assistance with activities of daily living, such as bathing, eating, dressing and mobility. Units can range from one room to large apartments.
  • What’s included: Meals, housekeeping, transportation, social activities and security/emergency alert system. Assistance with bathing, dressing and medication management.
  • Average cost: Varies widely depending on unit, amenities and level of services needed. The national median is $48,000 annually.

For seniors who need lots of assistance

Seniors with serious ongoing health problems who can’t safely live in assisted living or at home will need to transition to one of the following.

Nursing home

  • What they are/Who they are for: Facilities for seniors who require constant supervision or need ongoing medical care that can’t be provided at home. Also called skilled nursing facilities, they often provide rehabilitation services such as physical therapy, respiratory therapy or speech therapy. Units are typically one room or may be a shared room.
  • What’s included: Meals, housekeeping, transportation, social activities and security/emergency alert system. Assistance with feeding, bathing, dressing and toileting. Medication management and ongoing medical care.
  • Average cost: The nationwide median cost of a semi-private room is $7,441 monthly — for a private room, it’s $8,365. Because it’s medically necessary, some of the cost of a nursing home may be covered by Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance.

Memory care home

  • What they are/Who they are for: Skilled nursing facilities for seniors with dementia. They typically have a higher staff-to-patient ratio than nursing homes.
  • What’s included: Meals, housekeeping, transportation, social activities and security/emergency alert system. Assistance with feeding, bathing, dressing and toileting. Medication management and ongoing medical care. Added security and supervision to prevent wandering, as well as activities and therapies designed to help dementia patients.
  • Average cost: Typically $1,000 more per month than assisted living, or a national average of $60,000 annually.

What to look for when choosing a senior community

With so many options to choose from, it can be tough to decide. Take the following factors into account to help you make the right selection.

Proximity and community

Moving to a senior community doesn’t mean shutting out the rest of the world. For seniors who are still active and engaged in their communities, find out how close the facility you’re considering is to:

  • Doctors/hospitals/pharmacy: Getting to doctors’ appointments easily is important for seniors
  • Grocery and other stores: How easily can seniors shop for necessities?
  • Library: Public libraries offer a valuable intellectual outlet for seniors
  • Parks and recreation: For seniors who enjoy walking or participating in parks and recreation programs, being close to a park is important.
  • Entertainment/cultural events: Are there nearby cultural activities such as museums, theaters or musical venues?
  • Other: Make a list of other activities the senior enjoys and whether the senior community you’re considering has them nearby

Amenities and services

What additional services and amenities does the facility or community offer? The following may be important to you.

  • Shuttle buses/transportation services: For seniors who no longer drive, shuttles to local shopping centers, grocery stores and medical offices offer independence and remove the burden of driving from family caregivers. Find out where transportation goes, how often and what the process is for requesting a ride.
  • Fitness centers: How well maintained is the fitness center and what equipment does it have? What hours is it open? Are age-appropriate classes offered?
  • Pools: How big is the pool? What hours is it open? Are classes offered?
  • Community centers: Is there a gathering place for events or available for special occasions such as birthday parties? Does the community hold classes or other social activities there?
  • Tennis courts: What hours are the courts open? Is instruction offered?
  • Laundry facilities: Are they in-unit or shared? If the latter, how easily accessible are they and what hours are they open?
  • Common areas: What types of common areas exist and what are they used for? How well are they maintained?
  • Dining rooms: What are dining room hours? Can chefs accommodate special dietary needs? Is there a good variety of menu items? Can guests dine and if so, is there an additional charge?
  • Computer rooms: How new are the computers? Is instruction provided? Are there on-site staff to help seniors use the computers?
  • Beauty salon: What hours is the salon open? What services are provided and how much do they cost?
  • Library: Is there a lending library, used bookstore or reading room on the premises? What are the hours?
  • Organized social activities: What type of organized activities does the community offer? These might include movie nights, parties for holidays, classes, social clubs such as book clubs or bridge clubs, instruction such as dance or music lessons, musical performances or entertainers brought in from outside.
  • Medical care: Does the facility offer any type of medical care? What level of care is provided? Is there an additional cost for this?
  • Covered or guest parking: How many parking spaces do residents get? Is parking covered or secure to protect the vehicles? What type of guest parking is available? It’s important for friends and family to be able to visit easily.
  • Storage space: Does the facility offer additional storage space outside of the residents’ apartments or rooms? How much space is available and is there an extra cost?
  • Other amenities/Services: Make a list of other features the senior desires, such as a balcony, air conditioning, a gated community or hardwood floors.

Here are some other questions to ask when choosing a senior apartment.

Safety and age-in-place features

To help keep seniors safe in their new home and allow aging in place, look for these features of a senior living community.

  • One-story or elevator building: Many seniors use walkers, canes or other mobility devices, or have arthritis, pulmonary problems or other health issues that make stairs difficult. If the building is multi-story, find out about emergency exit plans for evacuating seniors if the elevators stop working.
  • Wheelchair-accessible: Whether or not your senior is currently using a wheelchair, they are likely to eventually. Look for doors and rooms wide enough for wheelchair users to move easily, counters at a comfortable height for wheelchair users and ramps for easy access to buildings.
  • Secure building and safe community: Vulnerable seniors benefit from living in communities with low crime rates. Make sure the building is secure and has features such as gates, restricted entry and doors that automatically lock.
  • Security and alarm systems: The additional protection offered by security guards and alarm systems can help bring peace of mind. Ask about alarms for the facility in general, in-unit alarms and alarm buttons in bathrooms or bedrooms in case residents fall or need medical assistance.

You can also add technology and convenience features to provide additional safety, security and convenience. Learn more about seven senior living technologies that can make life easier for seniors and how to make an apartment safe for seniors.

Other considerations

Here are some other questions to ask before you select your senior community.

  • What is included in the monthly cost? Make sure you know which amenities and services cost extra. If you’re moving into a continuing care facility, find out the costs of additional assistance (such as medication management) and how costs rise as you move into higher levels of care.
  • How much and how quickly can costs increase? Costs for senior housing have historically risen by 3 to 5 percent annually. Ask about average annual increases and whether there are any caps on increases.
  • What’s the pet policy? Many senior communities limit pets or forbid them altogether. If pets are important to you, ask about limits on the breed, size and number of animals allowed.
  • What HOA or other rules must residents abide by? HOAs typically restrict things such as the color you can paint your home, how you can landscape or use the property and parking. Make sure you are comfortable with these rules. Get ideas for how seniors can decorate their new home.
  • What’s the guest policy? Senior communities seek to avoid guests “sneaking in” and becoming long-term residents. Are guests allowed to stay overnight? Is there a limit on how long guests can stay? What are rules regarding guest parking and whether guests can access amenities such as swimming pools or fitness centers?
  • What is the age requirement? If you want to live with a spouse, child or younger family member who’s below the age requirement of your specific community, find out if this is allowed.
  • (For long-term care facilities): Is the facility licensed? Licensing and regulations for senior care homes vary widely from state to state. Your state office on aging can help you check on licensing. The Medicare website shows which nursing homes are state licensed.

Checklist: What to watch for on your tour

It's always a good idea to tour a senior community or facility before committing very far. If possible, bring your loved one with you so they can judge for themselves and decide if they'd be comfortable living there.

In addition to getting answers to the questions listed above, here are a few things you should pay attention to:

  1. Is the staff friendly, helpful and eager to show you around? How often do the staff interact with residents? Do they treat residents with respect?
  2. Is the facility clean and well-maintained? Are HVAC systems, fire alarms and smoke alarms in good repair? Does the facility smell pleasant?
  3. Is the facility’s technology up to date?
  4. View a unit similar to what your loved one may choose. Does it have everything the senior will need to be comfortable? Are appropriate safety and mobility accessories in place, such as handrails, shower seating and high toilets? Is there enough storage for personal possessions?
  5. See if your loved one can try the food. Can the facility handle their dietary restrictions? How much selection is available at mealtime? Can residents get snacks between meals?
  6. How good is the security? Are there cameras? Are they monitored? Do guards patrol the grounds? What kinds of security situations have they dealt with in the past?
  7. See if you can chat with some current residents. How do they like living there?
  8. Can you observe some social activities, such as an exercise or crafts class? Watch how the staff interacts with residents and what they do to engage them.
  9. Are residents well-groomed and dressed appropriately for the weather? Unkempt residents can be a sign of neglect.
  10. Are the outdoor areas pleasant and well-maintained? Can residents easily access the outdoors or do they need help from staff? How are residents monitored when outdoors?

How to pay for senior housing

It’s important to figure out how you can pay for senior housing. Most seniors use a combination of the options below.

Private funds

Private resources are often necessary to pay for the cost of senior living communities. These may include your retirement fund, taking cash out of or converting your life insurance policy, investments, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, an employee or retiree health insurance plan or a supplemental Medicare insurance policy. Many seniors pay for long-term care by selling their homes or renting them out and using the income to cover long-term care.

Government funds

In addition to Social Security benefits or disability benefits (for those under 65) from the federal government, there are several other government resources available to help pay for senior living and long-term care.

  • Medicare: Medicare may cover some eligible home health care services and short-term skilled nursing care. In some cases, Medicare also covers ongoing long-term care services to prevent further decline for people with medical conditions that may not improve, such as stroke, Parkinson's disease, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis or Alzheimer's disease.
  • Medicaid: Medicaid is a joint state and federal program for people with low incomes and few assets. It pays for long-term care services at home, including medical care and assistance with activities of daily living, as well as custodial care services in nursing homes. However, Medicaid programs and eligibility for services differ depending on your state. Some states cover assisted living services, for instance, and others don’t. Contact your state Medicaid office to learn more about your state’s programs and eligibility requirements.
  • HUD: Two programs from the Department of Housing and Urban Development may be helpful. The Section 202 program provides very low-income seniors with housing that allows them to live independently in an environment that provides support activities such as cleaning, cooking and transportation. The Section 811 program allows people with disabilities to live independently by subsidizing rental housing with access to necessary supportive services. Search for units, get help from a HUD approved housing counselor or contact your state HUD office for assistance.
  • Veterans Administration: Veterans may be eligible for veteran housing grants or in-home care benefits to help them stay in their homes or modify a home for aging in place. Contact the VA Health Care Benefits (877) 222-VETS or your local VA medical center.

How to find senior rentals

Here are some resources to help you find senior housing.

  • Get started by checking out Apartment Guide’s ranking of the 10 Best Cities for Seniors and AARP’s Livability Index tool.
  • Then use Apartment Guide’s search tool to find senior living communities.
    • To get started, select the Senior Living filter, set your desired price range and search by city, ZIP code or neighborhood.
    • Narrow your search by number of bedrooms and bathrooms, amenities such as gated access or air conditioning, pet-friendliness and community features such as pools or golf courses.
    • Filter by Assisted Living, Disability Access or Independent Living depending on your needs.
  • Need more care? Eldercare Directory has directories of nursing homes and home care providers.
  • Not ready to move? Use Medicare’s Home Health Compare to compare Medicare-certified home health agencies nationwide.

Other resources

The following resources provide information, assistance and resources for seniors and their caregivers: