As more members of the Baby Boomer generation consider making the transition from sprawling suburban homes to more manageable late-life living situations, many families are asking, “What is independent living for seniors? How is it different from assisted living?”

In short, independent living is simply living—as unencumbered as possible by age, limitations, medical conditions, and so on. The accommodations, amenities, services, and community features of independent living communities are designed to help residents achieve this goal, generally with residents themselves directing or heavily involved in community decisions that affect them.

Independent living definition

The independent living movement was born of the disabilities movement in the 1960s and 1970s and advocates a simple philosophy: that people with limitations of any kind can (and should) come together to form common supportive housing communities. Such shared communities prioritize autonomy and privacy, minimize the time (and risks) of mundane chores, and provide structured opportunities for social interactions and outings with other community members.

...provide structured opportunities for social interactions and outings with other community members.

Within independent living communities, individuals may choose to become involved in the community’s administration and decision-making, enhancing their own influence and independence even further. Or they may opt to remain hands-off. Either way, they always receive services and other benefits through the community that make their lives easier and more enjoyable while enhancing independence.

Independent living for seniors is an option worth exploring for older individuals in relatively good health who are currently able to live independently looking to transition to a living environment that is less demanding (financially, physically, or both) than a current home.

What is an independent living facility?

Known colloquially as “retirement communities,” independent living for seniors is a specific type of independent living center in which most (but not necessarily all) residents must meet age criteria. While other types of independent living facilities serve people with restricted abilities (physical, emotional, intellectual, or a combination of these), senior independent living facilities restricted residence only by age, most commonly requiring that at least one person per unit be 55 years or older.

A peaceful, quiet, child-free living environment is typically just the beginning, depending on geographic region, budget, and preferences. Retirement communities themselves vary considerably, with more variety in community configurations today than ever before.

Some communities designed as independent living for seniors are designed as villages—clusters of single-family houses, cottages, tiny homes, or mobile homes situated around shared recreational facilities. Others consist of multi-unit residential complexes such as apartment or condominiums. Many such communities provide access to shared recreational facilities, packed calendars of professionally scheduled social opportunities, regular transportation services, communal housekeeping and groundskeeping services

How much does independent living cost?

Now that the answer to “What is Independent Living?” is clearer, it’s time to get to the bottom line: how much does it cost to retire in such a communities or facility?

Within the context of available options for senior living, independent living for seniors may be one of the most affordable choices. Because such communities are specifically designed to house adults who are still healthy and active, able to live on their own, require little outside assistance, and prefer smaller living spaces, the cost of relocating to independent living can represent “downsizing” both physically and financially.

Many independent living communities also offer amenities that go well beyond the bare minimum as well, featuring swimming pools, golf courses, libraries, fitness classes and centers, laundry services, cultural outings/field trips, and more; most communities build the cost of at least some services into their community fees, with additional benefits and features available as add-on options.

Typical housing costs in independent living communities vary by type and by region of the country. These tend to be aligned with comparable competitive housing types in non-senior communities. But it is also important to note that shared community upkeep and maintenance costs (homeowner’s fees) are typically rolled into an additional administrative cost, above and beyond rent or mortgage, which may constitute an additional $1,000-$2,000.

Apartment communities

Senior apartment buildings or complexes (the most common type of an estimated 250,000 independent living units available in the United States today) restrict occupancy to those who meet minimum age requirements and generally offer at least a shared meal service, transportation options, and structured social activities for residents. With monthly rents that can range from $1,500 to $3,500 for reasonable accommodations (but may easily run up to $10,000 or more for luxury units in high-cost-of-living areas of the country). There are more options in more price ranges within this category than any other.

Age-restricted housing communities

Planned age-restricted housing complexes may consist of freestanding single-family homes, duplexes, condominiums, and/or mobile homes available for rent or purchase by those who meet age requirements. Generally centered around recreational and community facilities including a clubhouse, restaurant-style dining, and active residents engaged in a wealth of outside interests and activities, such developments connect residents through a wealth of activities including film and book clubs, tennis, golf, theatre outings, and full classes. Freestanding residences in these communities are generally connected by accessible coinjoining footpaths, sidewalks, and attractive landscaping.

...a wealth of activities including film and book clubs, tennis, golf, theatre outings...

Tiered care or continuing-care communities

For seniors of adequate means who find independent living attractive but are uncertain about how long they may be able to remain independent, there is a high-end option. Some facilities begin with independent living for seniors but also offer higher tiers of care within the same environment, creating an option to age fully in place. As the resident’s need for greater assistance with medical conditions or the activities of daily life grows, services and care provided expand through assisted living to fully skilled nursing care. These communities typically charge the full fee that may be necessary to cover the highest level of care up front, as an entrance fee (in addition to monthly housing payments that may approach several thousand dollars). The entrance fee to continuing-care communities may be hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the part of the country one lives in—anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000—but the peace of mind this model provides is the reassurance that a move to such a facility will likely be the final move, allowing residents to truly settle in and get comfortable in their new home.

Specialty retirement villages

Catering to specific populations of people who want to live with others with whom they share deep values, interests, life experiences, or other personally meaningful lifestyles, specialty retirement villages are found in many major cities and surrounding areas. There are retirement villages dedicated creating communities of veterans, specific religious denominations, artists, retired university personnel—even Freemasons. Those interested in specialty retirement villages should contact local senior centers and affiliate groups to find out more about options in geographic areas of interest.

Independent senior cooperative housing

A growing number of fiercely independent older adults across the American Midwest have pioneered a new form of independent living for seniors in the past few decades: The age-restricted, nonprofit, senior housing cooperative. This model is a freestanding corporation co-owned operated by a resident board of directors. With equal voices in ownership, rulemaking, and the right to approve (or reject) new residents, those who choose to relocate to a senior housing coop can expect to pay a monthly fee to the corporation’s “master mortgage.” In addition, there is a considerable up-front buy-in price, called a “share cost,” generally equivalent to 20-40% of the home’s value, typically starting around $100,000; share prices may approach $225,000 or beyond, depending on the community.

Monthly housing fees in independent living communities may be all-inclusive, or they may constitute a baseline rent or mortgage, with additional benefits and services offered on an a la carte basis. Additional fees, costs, and considerations in different communities will affect the budget and may include:

  • One-time assessment, application, waiting-list, and move-in fees
  • Groundskeeping and utilities
  • Private security and maintenance personnel
  • Meals (some communities offer meal plans)
  • Cable and internet access
  • Transportation and/or parking facilities
  • Wellness, exercise, and recreational facilities (gyms, pools, tennis courts, golf course, recreation center, clubhouse, fitness classes)

Benefits of independent living for seniors

While senior cooperative housing has been around for the shortest amount of time of all the independent living options, qualitative research on the experiences of older adults living in such communities conducted by Ohio State University identified a variety of physical, emotional, and even economic benefits of the cooperative living environment. People who had moved from single-family homes into cooperative independent living communities reported subjective beneficial outcomes:

85% reported more social activity
69% said they felt more independent after moving in
55% reported getting more physical activity after relocation
37% said their health had improved, overall
21% reported their financial circumstances had also improved

Preparing for independent living

Initially, the figures for independent living may appear daunting. The tradeoffs are considerable, however: maintaining safety, a robust social life, and an active daily schedule without the constant demands of a home too large to manage. To prepare for a transition to independent living from a family home, in the years before the transition, it is useful to take several preparatory steps.

Get everybody on the same page

The decision to downsize affects the whole family—not just the primary residents of the family home. Start having conversations with adult children, grandchildren, and/or other family members about the transition plan. Discuss the disposition and downsizing of cherished belongings that there may not be room for in the next home. If heightened tensions are anticipated among any members of the family regarding financial or real estate matters, pre-plan these conversations. Or consider scheduling an all-family meeting with a professional who has a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard the financial interests of the older person who is making a move. Such a person can facilitate the discussion and work around unnecessary conflict.

Use a financial planner to create a strategy to make independent living happen

Many people approaching retirement already have considerable assets and financial instruments that can be leveraged and restructured to help provide income on a continuing, reliable basis. As a move to independent living gets closer, a professional can help to ensure that remaining within the independent living community remains within their means. Investment strategies, 401(k)s, pensions, and investment vehicles should be comprehensively reviewed and rebalanced. Life insurance policies may be able to be cashed out on an accelerated basis to provide buy-in fees. Annuities and other instruments may provide monthly payment capital. Social Security and other sources of income can be maximized for the long-term. Ask tough questions. Look at best-case and worst-case forecasts.

The original home: Sell, rent, or reverse-mortgage?

While the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to relocating and downsizing is hanging up a “For Sale” sign, handing over the keys to stranger forever is not the only option. If seniors or their families aren’t yet comfortable with the thought of parting with a cherished family home, that may not be the only (or even the best) solution. In some regions, renting a home that is paid off or that has been in the family for years may bring in a great deal more income through monthly rent than it would in a lump-sum sale. Alternatively, a reverse-mortgage, taken as a lump sum (within the twelve-month statutory “primary residence” period required by such mortgages before a planned move to independent living) could serve as a way to finance entry fees in tiered care communities, or to obtain a share cost in a senior housing coop.

The bottom line on independent living

Independent living communities offer nearly limitless configurations of housing options for older people to live among their active, engaged, healthy peers in private residences of their own choosing, unburdened by mundane upkeep and maintenance tasks. With a high priority on safety, communal living, engagement, self-determination, autonomy, and privacy, independent living for seniors is often the first line of investigation when families begin to look at places for secure, healthy aging in place.