Independent Living: Choosing a Community
Usually apartment or condominium complexes, independent living communities can be ideal options for older adults who are ready to downsize to a smaller home but who value their independence and don’t yet need daily care. Once you or your loved one has decided that independent living is the best option, your next task becomes finding the right community for you. The resources on this page are designed to help you make the best decision for yourself and your family to find a community that feels like home.
5 Reasons to Choose an Independent Living Community
When you research the pros and cons of moving to an independent living (IL) community, you learn a great deal about housing, transportation, and other practical details. But ask residents of IL communities why they made the move — and why they’re happy about it — and you’ll hear some surprising answers. Here are five lesser-known, but no less important, reasons people choose independent living.
Reason #1: I want better access to my favorite sport.
Whether it’s the proximity to a golf course, the availability of tennis courts, or the selection of state-of-the-art gym equipment, recreational sports and fitness are among the biggest draws of independent living. In fact, do a quick search of independent living communities in your area, and you’ll see that many fitness features are almost universal; even smaller independent living communities typically have gyms, fitness classes, walking paths, and even swimming pools.
When it comes to golf, some senior living facilities have their own golf courses, others have affiliations with private clubs or provide shuttle transportation to community courses. Then there are the more specialized sports; some senior communities have equestrian centers, others have fishing and boating. If there’s a sport or recreational activity that defines your weekends, look for independent living communities where you can indulge all week long, and you know you’ll be a happy camper.
Reason #2: I want to meet someone new.
Let’s face it, meeting new people isn’t easy when you live on your own and socialize primarily within a circle of old friends. And when it comes to dating? Forget about it — you’re stuck with friends’ introductions and online dating sites. Independent living is the perfect antidote because socializing is automatic, no planning or effort needed. Whether you meet a new partner or just expand your circle, you’ll no longer find it a challenge to get out of the house and discover new friends.
Reason #3: I want to go back to school.
A recent report on MSN Real Estate detailed the rise in university-linked senior living communities, of which there are more than 60 in the U.S., with 30 more being built or planned already. And we’re talking top-name colleges and universities here, including Stanford, Oberlin, Dartmouth, and the University of Michigan. If you’re a baby boomer, this trend really should come as no surprise, since this generation is notoriously big on continuing education and self-improvement.
Why wouldn’t that continue — and even flourish — once you have more time to devote to learning? Even if you don’t happen to have a major university in your area, that doesn’t mean independent living with an education focus isn’t available. In addition to offering a large selection of classes onsite, many independent living communities provide transportation to local community colleges and adult education programs. And many bring authors, academics, and other experts in to give lectures and readings.
Reason #4: I like to eat at restaurants.
If you’d rather meet friends for dinner or cocktails than cook for yourself, you’re not alone. For women especially, cooking loses some of its luster after years of putting meals on the table for the family night after night. Independent living communities vary a great deal when it comes to emphasis on food. Simpler facilities, particularly those that are all in one building, may offer a single dining room with a set meal plan, while larger communities may feature several restaurants and cafes on site to choose from. If eating out is a favorite activity of yours, you should be able to find an IL community with a wide variety of dining options as well as convenient transportation into town.
Reason #5: I need to get in shape.
With the wealth of research now showing that exercise is one of the easiest and most effective ways to stave off heart disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia, diabetes, and a heap of other age-related ills, you’d be right in thinking that upping your exercise quotient is a worthwhile goal. But for many of us, exercise isn’t highly appealing unless there’s a social angle involved; we can’t imagine getting up early to go running, but meeting friends for an afternoon walk or dip in the pool is good fun.
If this is you, check out the group exercise options when you tour independent living communities. Yes, the gym looks fabulous, but what good does that do you if you won’t go? Instead, ask about dance and yoga classes, group hikes, handball tournaments — whatever sounds like it would motivate you to break a sweat.
What to Look For and Ask When Choosing an Independent Living Community
How to choose the right senior independent living community can feel highly stressful — how can you tell in advance which community is right for you? After all, what seems fabulous to your best friends might seem stuffy or overly lively to you, and vice versa.
The good news, though, is that if you ask enough questions and spend enough time visiting each community, you’ll know when it feels right. To get you started, here’s a checklist of what to research online, questions to ask about independent living facilities over the phone, and what to look for when you visit.
Before You Visit
1. Narrow your search by area
- Is the community in a town or community that you like or have heard good things about?
- Is the location convenient for family and friends to visit?
- How far is the nearest airport, and is it an airport with frequent, reasonably priced flights?
- Is the area safe, with a low crime rate? (Use websites like Crime Reports, Trulia, and Neighborhood Scout to check crime rates and safety records.)
- Is this a locally operated community, or part of a regional or national chain?
- If it’s part of a chain, is it a well-respected name you trust? (Check reviews of the brand, not just the individual community you’re considering.)
2. Next, narrow by community
- Is the community gated or open?
- Are there age restrictions on this community?
- Is the community close to shopping, restaurants, a medical center, and other services? Try using websites and apps to explore the neighborhood virtually.
- What are the housing options, and do they suit your needs? (For example, if you prefer a house or detached townhome, are these available?)
- Is this a continuum of care community (CCRC)? (Are there other levels of care available, such as assisted living, should you need it?)
- What is the cost range, and is there a buy-in fee?
- Is there a meal plan, and how flexible is it? If so, what are the dining facilities like?
- Check reviews: What are the comments and reviews from the Better Business Bureau, your local Area Agency on Aging, and here on Caring.com?
3. Ask preliminary questions when you call
- Are you currently accepting new residents?
- If not, is there a wait list, and how long is the typical wait? (Remember, many people join wait lists at several communities, so the list may be shorter than it seems. It’s always worth getting on the wait list if you’re interested.)
- What services and amenities are included in the price?
- What services are available for additional fees?
- What types of payment do you accept?
- Do you have any programs to help with the transition process?
During Your Visit
4. Ask about the community
- Is the neighborhood quiet and pleasant?
- Is covered parking available, and is it free or is there an additional charge?
- Is there easy access to public transportation?
- Are the buildings and grounds clean, spacious, and well maintained?
- Are the common spaces in the community pleasant and appealing?
- How many rooms are available where you can visit with other residents and with visiting family members?
- How extensive are the outdoor areas for recreation, exercise, and visiting?
5. Ask about the apartment units and fees
- Do the accommodations include a wide range of housing options, including smaller apartments or studios should you wish to downsize?
- Were you invited to view all the different types of units available?
- Are there handicapped-equipped units, should you need one at some point?
- Is there adequate storage space in the unit, or is additional storage provided?
- How are the views — do your windows face a garden or other green space?
- Are dogs, cats, and other pets allowed and, if so, are there limits on type or size?
- Will you be allowed to have visitors at any time and overnight, or are there curfews or other rules?
- Is there a homeowners’ association with membership fees?
- Are there homeowner rules about upkeep and decorating?
- Will you be required to have renter’s insurance?
- Are housekeeping services available, and at what price?
- Which maintenance issues are you responsible for and which are included with the unit?
6. Ask about food, activities and social life
- Will your visiting family members be invited to join you for meals?
- Do the residents seem to like the food?
- Is there a community center and, if so, how large and well equipped is it?
- Is there an extensive, varied schedule of classes and activities, including some that interest you?
- Are there evening events, such as movie nights and performances by local theater, dance, and music groups?
- Is there a gym or fitness center?
- What types of additional recreation facilities are offered?
- If there’s a sport you enjoy, such as swimming, tennis, or golf, is there a pool, courts or a course?
- Are there media and computer rooms available?
- Is there a private dining or community room available for family and other large events?
- Are there religious services in the community or nearby?
- Is there a barbershop and beauty salon in the community or nearby?
7. Ask about community staff
- Is there an activity director or staff members charged with organizing and leading activities?
- What’s the staff turnover rate?
- Are background checks performed before hiring staff? If so, when and how?
- How much training do staff members have?
- Does the community work with an agency or registry that provides in-home care companions in case you need assistance in the future?
- Is there an RN, LVN, or CNA on staff?
- Is there a clinic or medical unit within the independent living community?
- If so, what specific services are available from doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and others?
- Is the community affiliated with a hospital or nursing home if more care is needed?
- Does the community work with an agency or registry that provides nursing and medical assistance in case you need it in the future?
8. Request Important Forms
- Copies of leases, contracts, etc.
- A recent list of weekly activities and events
- A recent weekly menu of meals and snacks
- A copy of the Resident Bill of Rights
- A copy of the most recent survey results from state regulatory inspectors
Write down all the answers to your questions as you go, and keep a checklist like this for each independent living community you visit. If your visit was scheduled ahead of time, it’s a good idea to return for an impromptu drop-in visit to see if your experience is just as pleasant. (If you’re told you can’t come in for an unscheduled visit, that’s a very bad sign.)
Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to a few favorites, schedule in-depth follow-up visits and dig a little deeper.