What's the Difference Between Nursing Homes and Assisted Living?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development (RD) funded construction of the Cranberry Part assisted living facility in Clio, MI.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development (RD) funded construction of the Cranberry Part assisted living facility in Clio, MI. | Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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For families and seniors looking into special care, the options can be confusing. What is assisted living, and how is that different from a nursing home? And which option is right for my family?

Though they may sound the same, assisted living and nursing homes serve specific purposes with some fundamental differences. Here, we break down some the roles these types of housing play in helping your loved ones.

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Assisted Living

Assisted living, also called "residential care," provides housing for seniors or those who cannot live alone, but who do not need the higher level of medical care given in nursing homes. These facilities provide mid-level custodial care, such as help with bathing, eating, and dressing, while also providing limited activities for residents. These facilities can also be called adult living or supported care. In late September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed nine bills aimed at improving residential care facilities. (None of the new laws apply to nursing homes.)

Seniors still enjoy a degree of independence in assisted living facilities -- they live in private apartments -- with options for socializing with other residents and 24-hour help nearby. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines assisted living facilities as any that provide help with bathing, dressing, and medication.

Some assisted living also provides Alzheimer's care in a special wing, but not all facilities offer this option.

It's important to note that assisted living facilities are private pay establishments, which are not covered by programs such as Medicare or Medicaid, though they may be covered by some long-term care insurance policies.

Nursing Homes

Nursing homes, also called "skilled nursing facilities," are licensed facilities that hold transfer agreements with hospitals for those who require long-term care or short-term rehabilitation services. They provide a higher level of of constant care not provided by assisted living, including a staff of nurses and physicians, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Residents generally share rooms, and meals are served in a central dining hall (unless a resident is too ill to leave the room). This type of care is covered by both Medicare and Medicaid, though private payment options are also available an allow for more choices, such as private rooms.

A common criticism of skilled nursing facilities is that that some seniors find them depressing, and that these homes do not provide adequate care, requiring extra attention and monitoring from family members.

NOTE: This article is solely meant to explain the differences between types of care; it is not meant for medical advice.

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