Independent Living Facilities: Requirements & Regulations

An elderly woman in a wheelchair.

In the broad spectrum of senior living facilities, independent living facilities are the ones with the most, well, independence. The name says it all. These facilities focus on providing their residents nutritious meals, social interaction, and best of all, the freedom to live their lives the way they see fit. Due to this hands-off approach, independent living facilities do not have as many requirements and regulations as many long-term care facilities do. In this article, we will explain what exactly is offered in independent living facilities, types of communities, age requirement information, how they are regulated, and some costs you can expect to see. 

What are Independent Living Facilities?

Independent living facilities are senior housing arrangements designed for older adults usually aged 55 and older. The housing facilities can be anything from apartments to site-built homes. The facilities are usually tailored for older adults, being smaller and easier to navigate, as well as no maintenance or yard work to be done. Here are some of the services you can typically expect from an independent living facility: 

  • All-inclusive rent, though phone and cable may be excluded
  • Meals, 1-3 times daily
  • Security 
  • Grounds maintenance
  • Transportation services
  • Housekeeping services
  • Laundry
  • Emergency support services

A typical resident at an independent living facility is mentally and physically capable of living alone, and have no major health conditions. These seniors need little to no skilled nursing care or help with activities of daily living (ADLs). Most facilities do not have medical care or nurse staffing. However, third-party home health care services can be hired separately if needed. In this way, independent living facilities differ from assisted living facilities. Assisted living facilities offer more long-term care with the assistance of ADLs, as well as some health care services. 

Like assisted living facilities, many independent living communities offer its residents various amenities, services, and activities in their on-site recreation centers or clubhouses. Having such a facility allows seniors to connect and socialize together in community activities. Socializing reduces depression symptoms, which also means extended life span. Of course, all facilities are different, but here are some offerings you can find in independent living facilities:

  • Arts and crafts
  • Holiday gatherings
  • Continuing education classes
  • Movie nights
  • Swimming pools
  • Fitness centers 
  • Tennis courts
  • Golf courses
  • Various clubs and interests groups 
  • Spas
  • Beauty and barber salons

So now that we have an idea of what independent living facilities have to offer, let’s explore the different types of facilities out there. There are various options at varying price points with different amenities, social interaction, and continuing care. We will explore them all and give you some idea of what each one requires, and what you can expect. 

Types of Independent Living Facilities

Senior Apartments: This type of facility goes by many names including senior housing, senior living facility, senior living community, independent living facility, or independent living community. This is the most common type of independent living facility. Not only does this type of facility offer independent living, it often accommodates other care options. These can include assisted living, nursing home services, and memory care for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The range of services in senior apartments can be quite broad and can be tailored to the needs of seniors. The services available will vary widely depending on price points. Some facilities can be quite inexpensive, while some higher-end facilities will include extensive amenities like computer labs, gardens, libraries, salons, and fitness centers. 

Recreational programs, transportation services, and meals are offered at these facilities. There are other features such as in-house emergency systems, like pull-cords in each room to pull in case of an emergency. Staff is available 24/7 to assist. In these communities, safety and security are made a priority. 

Personal and medical care may be outsourced because the rent does not cover extra care. This is the difference between independent living and assisted living facilities. If more assistance in ADLs is needed, an assisted living community or nursing home might be a better fit. And, even though senior apartments often have age requirements, these facilities are privately owned and operated, and therefore able to set their eligibility requirements. 

Retirement Communities: Retirement communities are also referred to as age-restricted communities, retirement homes, adult active communities, and 55+ or 62+ communities. These communities are great for social interaction and have a more basic set of services than senior apartments. Residents in retirement communities tend to be much more independent, active, and able-bodied than those in other senior living options. Retirement community residents cook their meals and do their cleaning. However, grounds maintenance is taken care of by the community, and residents set up their recreational activities. 

Homes in retirement communities are most often owned by the residents, not rented. Owning the property however may not pay for additional monthly fees for services like yard maintenance, rec centers, or clubhouses. If the property is rented, this means it is part of a co-op or is rented from the property owner. Typical retirement community residences include single-family homes, duplexes, mobile homes, townhouses, or condominiums. This type of community is great for seniors who are still quite independent and want to own their own homes. They can be more active with people in their age group. 

Subsidized Housing: The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or charities provide this type of housing for seniors with low-income. Also known as supportive, affordable, and low-income housing, these communities have strict criteria and have long waiting lists. The housing that is provided is similar to that of senior apartments but at below-market rates. 

The subsidizing of rent payments is possible through the Section 202 program called Supportive Housing for the Elderly. This is provided for “low income” to “very low income” seniors, enabling them to pay 30 percent or less of their income on rent. It is also possible for seniors to be allowed Section 8 rent subsidies in voucher form. This can be as much as $2,000 a month. However, not all communities accept these vouchers, and these funds can be refused by property managers. 

So what are the requirements to be eligible for subsidized housing? Typically the minimum age for subsidized housing is 62 years old. They must have an income at or below 80% of the median income in their county to be considered for lower-income housing. If the resident only makes 50% of the average annual income, that would qualify them for very low-income housing. Once eligible, it is also important to be aware of any caps on income and assets. 

Some low-income senior housing facilities are owned and operated by non-profit groups. These groups work with USDA’s Rural Housing Service as well as HUD. However, these types of facilities are not available everywhere and there can be wait times of up to 12 months.

Other subsidized housing options are available through the Public Housing Authority (PHA). Called public housing, this means the property is owned by the federal government and allows its residents to spend less than 30% of their income on rent. These housing units are available for people of all ages, not only seniors. Therefore they might not be designed with seniors in mind. Another type of rental assistance program for all is called the HOME Investment Partnership Program, which HUD manages. 

Though subsidized housing may be for low-income residents, these properties are usually in safe neighborhoods and well managed. They are also designed specifically for seniors. The benefits of living in this type of community are not only affordability but the fact that seniors can remain independent amongst a community of their peers. 

Co-Care: Also known as senior co-housing, this is a shared housing unit where residents live with other older adults in multiple bedroom units. This is a good option for middle-income seniors. A newer type of independent living community, co-care allows residents to maintain common areas, socialize, and dine together. Private households include shared grounds or a common house. Typically the homes are designed to suit older adults for long-term living. Residents plan their social calendar and assess the needs of their community. 

There are even co-housing organizations and companies that provide senior co-housing. These can include housing cooperatives, homeowner associations, and condo associations. Oftentimes a group of seniors who are already friends will decide to move into a co-care arrangement. 

Co-care is also referred to as adult foster care at times. Though it usually means that a caregiver is taking care of several older adults in their own home, it can also refer to a community-based cohousing organization, usually on a small scale. 

Not only is co-care a good option for those seniors who enjoy the socialization aspect of a living arrangement shared with others, but another great benefit is also the affordability. Residents share bulk food costs, save electricity, and share resources, which all cut costs. This option is great for seniors who want to be involved in their community decisions, be independent, yet still socialize and live affordably.

Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC): A continuing care retirement community (CCRC), also known as a life plan community, is a great residential care facility for “aging in place.” A CCRC is especially attractive to baby-boomers who are more active and living longer than previous generations. This is because these care facilities in a CCRC offer varying levels of continuing senior care, including independent senior living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care units. They are similar to senior apartments in that they offer many similar services and amenities. However, personal care and health services are included in the costs. Residents can transfer to different levels of care on the CCRC campus as their needs change. Living in these kinds of long-term care facilities allows for peace of mind because your needs will be met, even after you lose your ability to be independent. Not moving will allow you or your loved one to feel calm and now worry about moving to another facility when the time comes. Because of this, you can plant your roots, make friends that will last, and still have all the services and amenities available to you for entertainment and recreation. 

Although this may be the most ideal option, the price may not be ideal. The entrance fee is often pricey, although some of the money may be returned to the adult children upon the death of their parent. Then there are also housing payments and homeowner association fees on top of that. Sometimes benevolence rates or non-profit offerings can be given to seniors in some CCRCs who are in need financially.

Age Requirements at Independent Living Facilities

As we’ve discussed, there is a minimum age requirement for some communities. This is regulated by HUD. Although HUD’s Fair Housing Act (FHA) does prohibit age-based housing discrimination, there was an exemption made called Housing for Older Persons Act (HOPA). HOPA protects senior communities from being sued for age discrimination. For a community to quality for the HOPA exemption, the community must be either of the following:

  • Designed and operated to accommodate elderly people
  • Occupied by people 62 years old or older
  • Occupied by people 55 years old or older 

For the 55+ communities, all of the following must be fulfilled to qualify for HOPA:

  • A minimum of 80% of the community units must have at least one occupant who is 55 or older
  • The community has to publish and comply with the policies and procedures demonstrating that they will operate as a 55+ community
  • The community must adhere to the HUD’s age verification requirements of its residents

As long as the community meets all of the HOPA requirements, it can create its own rules of how the age restrictions are defined. They just have to comply with state laws. For example, the community can require that all the residents are over 55. 

Regulations of Independent Living Facilities

Senior housing licensure is granted by the state. Typically these licenses are limited to the nursing center and food service. All the states vary in their regulations levels and procedures for licensures. To operate legally, each facility must have the appropriate licenses required. 

Inspections take place semiannually or annually by the state’s department of health and/or social services. Inspection teams consist of public health officials, nurses, sanitarians, and social workers. Any staff member, resident, and sometimes even a relative can be surveyed by the inspectors. The services like daily living activities, resident assessments, meals, and housekeeping are utilized to observe their quality and catch any issues. Medical appointments, money management, and records can also be scrutinized. Keep in mind, however, that independent communities that do not have many services do not need to be regulated because they don’t require state licensing. It is best to check your state regulations for more details.

Some independent living facilities are regulated more than others, depending on how much medical care is provided. Those facilities that are certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will be surveyed by the states themselves to ensure facilities comply with the Nursing Home Reform Act. There are no nationwide regulations regarding skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes. Some independent living facilities that could be subject to these regulatory measures would be CCRCs since they offer medical care. You can research report cards on these facilities online, and learn about any violations or citations they may have. There is a five-star scale on which the facilities are rated, to follow the strict CMS standards. Another option is to contact a local long-term care ombudsman for advice on choosing the right facility.

If the independent living facility isn’t CMS-certified, there are other methods to evaluate these facilities. Third-party sites, which offer online reviews, will give you a good idea of the community you are interested in. You can also contact individual state or federal agencies to learn about the specific regulations in your state. 

Cost of Independent Living Facilities

Subsidized senior housing is the most affordable option, as previously mentioned. Those with low income can apply. The amount of rent assistance you receive depends on your income. 

Due to the low need for medical services of its residents, Independent living facilities are one of the cheaper senior living options. Costs widely vary due to many factors, ranging from $1,500 to $6,000 a month. On average, the cost for a one-bedroom senior independent living apartment is $2,750 a month. This can be compared with a comparable apartment in an assisted living community at $3,477 a month on average. Costs vary depending on the type of community, how big the apartment is, the location, and any services that may be offered. 

Home prices in a retirement community can fluctuate in price depending on the market. You could rent an efficiency apartment for $1,000 a month, or purchase a home for $1,000,000. It all depends on the number of bedrooms, features, and location of the property. Don’t forget there could also be buy-in costs for amenities, as well as HOA monthly dues. 

A co-housing arrangement varies depending on the property and how many other seniors are living in the property. 

CCRCs are the most expensive of all the senior living options. The entrance fees range from $20,000 to $500,000. Then of course there are monthly fees that can range from $500 to $3,000, depending on what contract and services you agree on. 

Independence Contributes to a Greater Quality of Life

Whether it’s living in a 55+ community to a large scale CCRC, your loved one will thrive when surrounded by peers their own age. The independence they gain from living in such a community allows for greater quality of life. We here at CareAsOne hope that you have learned what you can expect from independent living facilities and how your loved one can benefit from them.

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