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Nursing Homes Versus Assisted Living: What’s the Difference?

A woman in assisted living getting help in her apartment

There are many options for senior living, with an assortment of easily confused names. A confusion many people have is about nursing homes versus assisted living centers. However, there are key differences between the two types of facilities. Understanding these differences can help you choose the best option for yourself or a loved one.  

What Is a Nursing Home? 

A nursing home is a residential, skilled-care facility where residents require 24-hour supervision because of serious or chronic medical issues. Residents receive a high level of care for both basic and medical needs.  

Typical services in nursing homes include: 

  • Medical Care. Licensed medical personnel are responsible for health care issues including but not limited to respiratory and catheter care and intravenous injections.  
  • Rehabilitative Services. A licensed medical professional will provide speech, physical, and occupational therapy. 
  • Basic Needs. Residents receive assistance showering, getting dressed, and moving in and out of bed. There is general daily management for day-to-day needs like nutrition and mobility.  

Some nursing home stays can be short-term, especially when a patient needs rehabilitation services after a brief stay in the hospital. After this intermediate stay, they can be discharged home. Others may require a longer or permanent stay depending on their needs and condition.  

What Is an Assisted Living Center? 

An assisted living center is a residential community for active seniors who cannot live independently. Residents can live alone or with partners in private apartments. They don’t typically need skilled nursing but may need help with day-to-day needs like getting dressed, managing medicine, and using the restroom.  

The main objective is to give residents a safe environment while allowing them to maintain their independence. These facilities also offer recreational and social activities, and most have a trained nurse on staff to address minor health needs.  

Differences Between Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Centers 

Nursing homes and assisted living centers offer a way to care for seniors. They provide social support, a safe environment, day-to-day help with basic needs, and nutritional assistance. Both have trained staff to deal with medical conditions.  

Although some aspects of nursing homes and assisted living centers are the same, the main difference is that assisted living facilities have a residential feel and environment while nursing homes have a medical environment.  

Here are some other notable differences:  

Nursing Homes Cost More  

The costs to care for a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living center vary regionally. In general, though, caring for a senior in a nursing home is more expensive because of the level of medical assistance required. A nursing home stay costs twice as much as an assisted living facility annually.  

Medicare and Medicaid Covers Nursing Home Costs 

Medicare and Medicaid don’t cover assisted living facilities. Instead, residents must pay out-of-pocket or with long-term care insurance. In contrast, nursing homes can be covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare will cover nursing home costs for a maximum of 100 days, while Medicaid will cover costs as long as eligibility requirements are met.  

A Different Level of Care  

In a nursing home, there is constant monitoring and supervision with 24-hour nursing care. Staff are qualified to take vitals and draw blood. Because of the need for medical supervision, the nursing home may be connected to a larger hospital or healthcare facility.  

Care in an assisted living facility involves caring for basic non-medical needs, like getting dressed or helping with taking medications.  

Meal Preparation 

In a nursing home, a kitchen staff prepares and serves food for the senior residents. In an assisted living facility, residents make their meals in their own kitchens. Some assisted living facilities also offer a meal service and community dining room. This will vary between facilities. 

Recreational Activities  

Assisted living facilities tend to offer more recreational activities to their residents because they are more independent and active.  There are exercise programs, game nights, and opportunities to socialize.

Nursing homes also offer some activities, but they are limited since many of the residents need help moving on their own. Although there are mentally stimulating activities, exercise is usually managed by a physical therapist.  

What is a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC)? 

When researching different options for senior living and care, you may come across the term Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC). These communities offered multiple levels of services that become available to people as they need them without the resident needing to leave the community. Instead of moving to an entirely new facility when they need a higher level of care, a CCRC allows the resident to move within their community.

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