Retirement Communities/ ..Independent Living

Retirement Communities/ ..Independent Living

time icon 5 min read update icon Oct. 22, 2019


Retirement communities and independent living facilities are the least homogenous category of housing. Generally speaking, this category refers to any housing arrangement designed exclusively for seniors (usually defined as persons over age 55), in which the resident does not need daily assistance with medical or personal care.

This broad definition encompasses all kinds of planned retirement communities, from rural and suburban single-family home developments to urban and suburban condominium and apartment complexes, to mobile home parks and manufactured home communities, to subsidized municipal housing projects for low-income elderly.

The definition also includes a variety of smaller-scale senior housing facilities often referred to as "congregate housing" or "senior apartments," which may be subsidized by local charities instead of by municipalities. Residents in these facilities may live boarding-house style, or they may have individual apartments with common areas for socializing. Most of these communities provide one or two meals each day for residents and access to private or common kitchen facilities for other meals.

Criteria for Suitability

A retirement community or independent living facility will work for you if:

  1. You generally are healthy, such that any daily medical or personal care assistance can be provided by visiting nurses or minimal visits by a home health aide;
  2. You have the ability to keep in touch with your doctors or other caregivers as needed, possibly with the help of family or friends but without assistance from trained staff on-site;
  3. If you are thinking about a community with a great location and lots of amenities, you must have the means to pay for it; and
  4. If your financial means are limited, you must be able to accept the limitations in the lifestyle you will able to afford if you choose a subsidized facility.
Facilities and Services

The physical structure of facilities that qualify as retirement communities or independent living facilities is very diverse. Planned communities may consist of single-family or attached homes, mobile or manufactured homes, high-rise or low-rise apartments, cluster housing, standard subdivisions, or any other structure and layout that works for elderly residents. Congregate housing and senior apartments generally consist of converted private homes or apartment complexes. Facilities that meet neither of the above criteria may offer any number of other designs and layouts.

A high percentage of retirement communities and independent living facilities provide common areas for meals and socializing. In larger planned communities, common areas may consist of a complete community center designed as a separate structure or wing of the facility. In smaller facilities, common areas may consist of nothing more than a community dining room and sitting area. The cost of the facility often reflects the amount of community space that is provided.

Recreational and social activities in retirement communities and independent living facilities vary as much as the facilities themselves. Some communities have full-time directors for these services, while others offer only informal activities arranged by residents. Depending upon the age and resources of residents, activities calendars may range from plentiful to sparse.

Medical and personal care services generally do not vary quite as much as other kinds of services in retirement communities and independent living facilities. Virtually all facilities in this category require any medical or personal care services to be provided by local visiting nurse or home care agencies. Some facilities, especially those advertised as congregate living or senior apartments, may have a social worker on staff to assist residents to contact such agencies. In other communities, administrators may provide such help without being formally designated as social workers.


Like most of the characteristics described above, the cost of retirement communities and independent living facilities is extremely variable. At the low end are subsidized housing, congregate living and senior apartments, most of which charge as a percentage of the residents' income. Subsidies to make up the true cost of the facility are provided by public or private charities.

At the high end are planned retirement communities that require the purchase of a separate home, unit or cooperative share as the price of admission. The cost to buy in reflects the local real estate market for housing of similar location and quality, plus the cost of physical amenities provided by the facility or the community management. Most of these communities have monthly fees of $1-2,000, in addition to the cost of buying in, which pays for taxes, common utilities and services provided to residents.

Between the low end and the high end are retirement communities and independent living facilities which operate strictly on a rental basis, plus a monthly charge for services. Rent and service fees tend to reflect the cost of luxury housing in the local community. Fees in the urban Northeast, for example, are often $2-3,000 per month for a comfortable facility and a service package that includes meals, housekeeping and linens.

Because of the wide variations in design, facilities, services and costs of retirement communities and independent living facilities, you should plan to take longer to select this type of housing than you would for a CCRC, assisted living facility or nursing home. You should visit many facilities, learn the details of each one and choose carefully.

For an in-depth discussion of topics related to Retirement Communities and Independent Living facilities, ElderNet recommends readings by Lawrence A. Frolic, Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, published by Warren Gorham & Lamont.

Grandfolk - Editorial Staff

Grandfolk® editorial staff provides in-depth product and service reviews to empower senior buying decisions.