Choosing a home as an older American, you have new options because of your age. First, on your 50th birthday a small percentage of resort-style retirement communities start competing for your housing dollars. Then when you reach ages 55, 62 and 65 you become eligible for retirement communities with more traditional age restrictions, and for senior long-term care facilities.

What's the difference between a retirement community and a long-term care facility?

  • Retirement communities are meant primarily for healthy and active adults, but some are also designed for people with less independence. The latter are called continuing care retirement communities.  
  • Long-term care facilities are for people who need personal care support and/or medical care. Included are assisted care facilities and nursing homes, as well as continuing care retirement communities.
In This Article:
Retirement Housing ↓
Long-Term Care Facilities ↓

Retirement Housing

Retirement housing is generally for healthy people ages 55 and up, but note these exceptions:

  1. Not all retirement community residents live independently.
  2. Not all retirement communities are restricted to ages 55+.
  3. Not all residents are people. (They're pets!)

Here you can learn about traditional retirement housing and a new alternative called cohousing.

In This Section:
Senior Apartments ↓
Retirement Communities ↓
Senior Cohousing ↓

Senior Apartments

Senior apartments are the most popular type of senior-specific housing. Their common benefits are dining halls, social calendars and transportation. Some properties have additional shared amenities such as courtyards, swimming pools and optional housekeeping services. Get an overview with these questions and answers...  

1) How do people pay for senior apartments?

Our page Independent Living explains apartment payment options for different situations:

  • Private payment solutions  
  • Section 8 housing vouchers
  • Section 202 federal housing (Supportive Housing for the Elderly)  

2) How old are the residents?

Age restrictions for senior apartments vary.

  • On the private market, senior apartments tend to be strictly limited to residents 55+ or 62+.
  • With Section 202 senior apartments a minority of tenants may be non-seniors. This lets seniors live with younger relatives, plus it permits younger tenants to rent their own units.

3) What pets are allowed?

Pet policies are varied. When apartments are advertised as pet-friendly, generally they're including indoor cats and small or medium-sized canine companions.

  • With persistence you can find senior apartments that accept big dogs. Each dog might need to pass an "interview."
  • Most apartment complexes prohibit large fish tanks because these involve a water damage risk.

4) How healthy are the residents?

Most adults in senior apartments are fit to live independently. If in-home support is needed, it's arranged separately.

Retirement Communities

Retirement community housing choices range from small condo units to freestanding single-family homes. Sometimes retirement community housing can be rented, but typically the residents are owners. Owners pay fees to support a clubhouse, transportation service, landscaping and other amenities. Long-term care is sometimes available on-site as explained below.  

1) How do people pay for retirement communities?

People pay for retirement communities with private funds, not with federal or state assistance. The ElderWeb section "How to Pay for Senior Independent Living" reviews common payment solutions such as social security pensions, retirement annuities and bridge loans.

Note: The article section is about halfway down in Independent Living

2) How old are the residents?

Senior retirement communities aren't necessarily seniors-only. Most allow younger guests and some allow younger residents. You can learn about different policies for younger guests and tenants in the ElderWeb section "Questions to Ask When Choosing a Retirement Community."

3) What pets are allowed?

Pet policies differ from community to community. Homeowners might be restricted from keeping dogs of a certain size or breed, especially when living quarters are close. They might also need to follow policies about fish tanks, exotic pets and outdoor cats.

4) How independent are the residents?

Residents in retirement communities have different levels of health and independence.

  • Standard retirement communities are especially meant for what the industry calls active adults. Anyone needing special care must arrange for it privately.  
  • Continuing care retirement communities have on-site care in case residents temporarily or permanently need home health care, personal care support or other in-home care.  

Senior Cohousing

Senior cohousing involves owning a private home -- not living with strangers -- yet getting benefits of somewhat communal living. Generally it lets residents enjoy a high quality of life for less money than they'd spend traditionally. Cohousing communities typically consist of homes that form neighborhood blocks or are clustered around pools, ponds or parks. Homeowners together pay for a shared house and various amenities/services ranging from yard maintenance to in-home care.

1) How do people pay for senior cohousing?

Generally people finance their cohousing just like regular home purchases (e.g., with savings, investment returns and loans). Additionally each community makes its own rules about contributing for shared expenses.

2) How old are the residents?

Senior cohousing isn't necessarily for seniors only. Each community makes its

own rules. Some are intergenerational to support seniors who are partners or guardians of younger individuals.

3) What animals are allowed?

Generally a senior cohousing community is very friendly to cats and dogs. Some allow chickens, goats, horses and other farm animals.

4) How independent are the residents?

Senior cohousing helps people age in place. Communities have various arrangements to share costs for physical therapy and other in-home care if/when it becomes needed.

Long-Term Care Facilities

Long-term care is for people who need daily living assistance and/or skilled medical care. The main types of long-term care facilities are assisted living centers and nursing homes. Long-term senior care is also integrated with residency in select retirement communities.

In This Section:
Assisted Living Centers ↓
Nursing Homes ↓

Assisted Living Centers

Assisted living centers are also called personal care homes. Traditionally they're for people who don't need skilled nurses, but do need help with personal care tasks such as brushing their teeth and showering. Memory care (specialized caregiving for dementia patients) is available in some personal care homes. Some of these facilities are combined with nursing homes to provide what's called "a continuum of care." Nursing homes add skilled medical care.

1) How do people pay for assisted living?

People tend to pay for assisted living with more than one funding source. Spending a few hours with a geriatric planner (or estate planner) could be very valuable.

To start learning about common payment options, you can see the ElderWeb section "Cost of Assisted Living & How to Pay." A few examples are savings, long-term care insurance, and subsidies from Medicaid and the Veteran's Administration.

2) How old are the residents in assisted living centers?

People of all ages might need assisted living, so assisted living centers have different population profiles. Some personal care homes operated by the VA, for instance, are multigenerational and serve soldiers as young as 18.

State laws provide age guidelines for assisted care centers meant especially for seniors. Common age minimums are 55, 62 and 65.

3) What pets are allowed?

Finding an assisted living center that accepts pets is tricky, but an increasing number of assisted living centers are pet-friendly, especially to cats and small dogs. Some offer pet care services such as grooming and walking.  

4) How independent are the residents of assisted living centers?

Residents of assisted living centers generally need support with two or more activities of daily living (ADLs) such as getting out of bed, using the toilet or taking a bath. In facilities tailored for memory care, patients get 24-hour supervision for safety against wandering and other dementia-related risks.

Nursing Homes

Nursing homes are named after the skilled nurse services that they provide. This is a step up from the medical care available in assisted living centers. With assisted living a resident can get basic medical care such as wound dressing and blood pressure monitoring, but only with nursing home care will they have daily access to the skills of more advanced practitioners such as RNs (registered nurses) and occupational therapists.  

1) How do people pay for nursing homes?

People combine private and public funds in many different ways to pay for nursing home care. Options depend on state law and a person's financial profile. See the ElderWeb section "Nursing Home Payment Solutions" for an introduction to payment sources such as annuities, Medicare and long-term care insurance.

As with planning for any type of senior housing, when arranging payment for a nursing home it's valuable to consult with a trustworthy geriatric planner.

2) How old are nursing home residents?

People of all ages need temporary or long-term nursing home care, so some nursing homes serve people of all ages. Many nursing homes have age restrictions to keep their populations primarily or exclusively for older adults. Common minimum entry ages are 55, 62 and 65.

3) Are pets allowed?

Pet-friendly nursing homes aren't found in all parts of the US, but they do exist and are becoming more common. Some nursing homes offer pet care services such as dog walking, litter scooping and pet grooming. Much more common though are nursing homes with their own dogs and cats (and possibly other kinds of animals) for all residents to love.

4) How independent are the residents?

Nursing home residents generally are in medical recovery or have chronic health conditions that need daily medical attention. Compared with residents of assisted living centers they have lower activity levels on average. Also compared with assisted living residents, a higher percentage of nursing home residents have advanced Alzheimer's disease or other serious mental health conditions.