A Guide to Senior Living Apartments

There are so many options for seniors that it's hard to figure out which is best for you and your family.

Senior living is a complicated subject at the best of times, but it's more complicated than ever before with all the different choices that have popped up in the past decade.

This guide will help you navigate the complex world of senior living options to help choose the best one for your family. We'll go over the different types of living arrangements available, as well as the cost and assistance available for each. Then, we'll discuss how to know when it's time to make the move and where to find more information.

In this guide:

Types of senior housing

There are many different types of senior living apartments to choose from. Depending on your needs, you can find communities for active, independent seniors to special memory care units for those caught in the throes of Alzheimer's. Some senior housing communities are transitional, as well. You can start in the independent living section of the community with your basic senior apartments and transition into sections that offer more assistance as needed. Some types of communities only cater to seniors with a certain level of disability or who meet a certain income threshold (or both).

This section will help clarify some of the types of senior housing communities available and the synonyms used to describe each.

Independent living community

Over-55 apartments, independent living facilities and retirement communities

These communities are age-restricted, being specifically made for seniors who are 55+ and live independently. Some are single-family homes, but most are senior apartments. Some are rental communities, some are ownership communities and some are a combination of the two. They often have senior-friendly features, such as one-level floorplans, ADA-certified spaces and extra handicapped parking. They're not designed for seniors who have significant disabilities that require a lot of assistance for daily living.

These communities of 55 and over apartments offer a wide range of amenities, from just the bare-bones essentials to luxury features. Some have activities programming, sports teams and even golf courses. A few offer continuing education classes. Many have pools and walking trails. It's fairly easy to find a retirement community that offers whatever amenities appeal to you.

Senior apartments exist all over the country. Retirement communities are also ubiquitous. You can find a community that fits you no matter where you live.

Because these are age-restricted 55+ communities, they usually have lease clauses that specify that everyone living in the unit is over the minimum age of 55. Many also have rules and regulations regarding how many people can visit at once, how old they are and how many days they can stay. Be sure to read the fine print of the lease so you know what you're agreeing to!

Level of disability

Senior apartments and similar communities are designed for independent living. They don't offer any caretaker services but will allow caregivers to come in. They're almost always ADA-certified in both the individual units and communal spaces, so they facilitate aging in place and can accommodate multiple levels of disability.


The cost varies dramatically depending on the nature of the community and the amenities offered. You'll normally have one monthly payment that includes rent and any additional fees (such as trash pickup and pest control). In mixed or ownership communities, there's a possible separate HOA fee. Utilities are normally separate.


Most senior apartments include senior-friendly features such as ADA accommodations, elevators and handicapped parking. Many also include fun amenities like pools, golf courses or trips to local attractions, beyond just health and accessibility related amenities.

Additional assistance

These communities don't offer caretaker services but will allow you to bring in caretakers if needed. If you ever develop the need for full-time care, you will need to either move to a community offering a higher level of care or pay for private caregivers.

Low-income senior living apartments

These senior housing apartments are for low-income seniors and funded by many different programs. Some age-restricted communities and transitional or assisted living communities that normally charge higher rates (both apartments and single-family residence communities) often have affordable apartments set aside for low-income residents. This is normally part of a tax credit deal with the local municipal authorities. The management company gets a reduced tax rate in return for renting a certain percentage of its apartments at a reduced rate.

Section 8, a federally subsidized program for low-income renters, is also available to seniors. If you qualify for it, you'll get a voucher to pay for rent and find your own unit in any complex or community you wish. You can also use it to rent a single-family home if you find a landlord who will take your voucher. Many cities also have public housing options available to seniors.

Level of disability

Low-income senior apartments vary from independent living to assisted living. Section 8 and public housing units normally only cover independent living arrangements. Subsidized units and local programs vary in what they provide. Some provide transportation, cleaning and other services to all residents. You'll need to have a plan to either bring in additional services when you need them or to transition to a community that provides more care.


Because these programs are designed for low-income seniors, their pricing per unit is generally quite low. A low-income apartment rent is normally limited to 30 percent of your income or less. They waive the remainder or the subsidy picks it up. Federal programs normally have a cap equal to the federal poverty level, currently $29,425 per year for one person. This limit is never lower but is higher in some locations with a high cost of living or higher median household income. The income cap for state and local programs varies based on the nature of the program and the location.


Section 8 and public housing units may or may not have additional functionality designed for disabilities. Senior apartments, transitional communities and assisted living facilities are usually ADA-certified. Some of these communities offer assistance as a matter of course, but all of the ones that don't will allow you to bring in private caretakers to help out. Many states and municipalities have programs that offer help to low-income seniors who are in subsidized housing.

Additional assistance

Low-income senior housing and Section 8 programs are in high demand and often have long waitlists. Depending on the type of community and the location, the wait time is anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. It's important to apply for these programs even before you think you'll need them in order to get on the waitlist.

Continuing care community

Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs)

A continuing care retirement community has multiple sections or “wings" ranging from independent living to memory care and all the potential stops in between. These communities are non-denominational corporate communities or religious communities. A few have spaces reserved for low-income residents but there are no or few publicly-funded options in most places.

These senior housing communities require seniors to live independently with little or no assistance when moving in. As you age and require more personal assistance, you can either move from one section of the community to another or have the caretakers come to you. If you ever need full-time nursing care, you can move into that section of the community and still be around people you've come to know and remain in a familiar environment. These communities are growing in popularity because they keep seniors from having to move from one community to another as care needs increase.

The number of amenities offered by these communities varies but is usually extensive, particularly in the independent living section. Most of them offer transportation and have organized outings, even in the assisted living sections. Many are continuously full and have waitlists, so it's important to get on the list early.

Level of disability

Continuing care retirement communities can accommodate every level of disability, up to and including round-the-clock memory care for those in the advanced stages of dementia. They're equally good at providing simpler accommodations, such as transportation to doctor's appointments and ADA-approved buildings. There's no worry about accessibility or getting around from the moment of joining through the end of life.


One of the downsides to these communities is their cost. They are exceptionally expensive. Most have a buy-in cost you must pay upfront to join the community, normally in the mid-five to the low-six-figure range. After that, there's a monthly fee to pay. Communities that have high buy-in costs tend to have low, often fixed monthly fees, while those with lower buy-in costs usually have fees that vary based on the level of care.


Every CCRC has a full range of functionality for those of all disability levels. Every unit is ADA-certified, as is the entire community. There's no worry about accessibility or getting around from the moment of joining through the end of life.

Additional assistance

These senior housing communities are all-inclusive. You should never need to hire outside assistance or bring in additional help for your day-to-day life.

Assisted living community

Assisted living apartments

An assisted living community might be right for you if you need personal assistance with daily living like housekeeping, personal grooming or basic medical care. Unlike other senior housing options, assisted living communities will accept everyone who needs this level of care instead of being age-restricted to seniors. They have medical staff and assistance personnel available 24/7. You'll always be able to access help with whatever you need. The type and availability of amenities varies by community.

Some assisted living communities connect to a nursing home, but offer less intense care. If you need help with daily living but not full-time nursing, then this community will fit you best, combining a level of care with the freedom offered by senior apartments.

Most assisted living apartments are privately owned, but there are some public facilities and many offer spots to lower-income seniors in exchange for tax credits or subsidies. Again, these programs have limits and waiting lists, so it's best to apply before it's necessary. If you wait, you may have to pay out of pocket while waiting for a covered spot to open up.

Level of disability

Assisted living communities provide care for moderate to severe disability levels. They have caretakers and nursing staff to assist with daily needs and moderate health concerns. If and when you need full-time nursing, you'll need to transition to a nursing home.


The average cost of assisted living in 2020 was $4,300 a month but varied dramatically by state and type of community.


Assisted living communities are ADA-certified by design, meaning there's no problem with accessibility.

Additional assistance

Senior assisted living apartments provide one of the highest levels of available care. If you need more assistance than they can provide, you'll need to transition to a nursing home or a memory care unit.

Nursing home care

Nursing homes

Nursing homes provide full-time, 24-hour care for those who are severely disabled and ill. While they're not age-restricted, serving seniors and non-seniors alike, most of the residents in a nursing home tend to be older persons. Some are private and some are publicly owned and operated. Amenities and atmosphere vary widely. Some are aseptic, hospital-like environments, while others are homey and offer multiple activities. The price varies dramatically, as well.

Some homes only accept private pay or long-term care insurance. Others accept regular health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Still, others accept public funding. Public and Medicaid spots are hard to find and have long waitlists.

Level of disability

Nursing homes care for the highest level of disability, where daily living is impossible without personal assistance. Seniors who typically need lower levels of care aren't admitted except on a temporary basis, such as after surgery or another health crisis causes their medical care needs to increase.


Nursing home care is incredibly expensive. The average annual cost nationwide was $105,855. The average varies by state from $49K in Texas to almost half a million dollars in Alaska. It also varies by the kind of nursing home and extra amenities and resources provided.


Nursing homes have the most disability accommodations possible.

Additional assistance

The only step up in assistance available from a nursing home is to a memory care unit.


Alzheimer's and memory care units

These are units, often within larger homes but sometimes freestanding, devoted exclusively to senior housing and care for older persons with advanced dementia and Alzheimer's. They offer high-level, skilled care designed just for these patients.

There aren't enough memory care units to meet the demand and the latter is only expected to grow, along with waitlists. Getting on the waiting list for these units early is increasingly important.

Level of disability

These are severe disability care facilities. It doesn't accommodate less severe levels, so it's not a senior housing option for those who are less disabled. These facilities also can't accommodate severe physical needs in addition to providing memory care, and patients who need both will often have to transition back to a nursing home.


The cost of Alzheimer's care averages $6,935 per month nationwide. Some facilities accept Medicaid and insurance, while others are private pay only.


Memory care units are ADA-accessible and additionally designed to accommodate those with memory issues. They have 24/7 care and controlled access to prevent issues with patients wandering off.

Additional assistance

If a senior in memory care develops more intense physical issues in addition to the memory issues, the facility will transfer them to a nursing home for advanced physical care.

Veteran care

Veteran-specific care

The VA offers a full range of care options specifically for veterans and their spouses, starting with home health care and going up to full-time nursing home care. These facilities are all around the country and open to any veteran and the spouses of veterans regardless of income level or disability. The demand for these services far exceeds the supply, however, and the waiting list is incredibly long.

Level of disability

The VA offers care for every range of disability. It will provide basic senior housing needs by sending in-home caregivers to vets' homes and operates both assisted living and nursing home facilities. Vets can request additional assistance as needed and can move up through the levels of care when appropriate.


The cost of the services varies according to the level of care provided and the benefits each veteran qualifies for from the VA. Some services are free while others have a copay and still others aren't covered for some or all vets. The latter is usually covered by Medicare or Medicaid, however.


The VA provides coverage for all levels of disability.

Additional assistance

Vets can request additional assistance as needed and can move up through the levels of care when appropriate.

When to transition into senior living facilities

Knowing when to transition to senior housing or assisted living is difficult for every family. Trying to make the decision is stressful for both seniors and their loved ones. Anyone can move into an age-restricted 55+ or senior housing community as soon as they reach the minimum age. Sooner is normally better, because the longer you wait, the sooner you might have to transition from an apartment to an assisted living facility. Some seniors want to transition while others want to live on their own as long as possible. Both choices are understandable!

Continuing care communities are harder to make the call on because you're limited to entering when you're capable of independent living. If this is the option you feel is best for you, you should consider moving in as soon as feasible because any fall or suddenly developing health problem can rule out admission for life.

It's also hard to make the decision to transition to either assisted living or nursing home care from a private home. Sometimes cost is the issue, while other times, you may just want to stay at home for as long as possible.

Most insurance companies will now pay for in-home care aides and there are also private services you can hire. While expensive, they're considerably less so than either assisted living or nursing homes. These are options you can utilize to delay the transition or even avoid it entirely. Some seniors are able to successfully live out the remainder of their lives in their own home or a loved one's.

So, how do you know when it's time to transition? If home care is untenable, even with home health aides, when accidents happen more frequently and dangerous situations occur regularly and/or when the level of nursing required exceeds what you can provide, it's time to consider transitioning to either assisted living or a nursing home.

Nursing home care

How to find senior apartments

You can find any number of senior living communities of all levels just by searching on Rent. and using the “senior living" filter. You can search for housing, read about senior housing issues and more just by going to the website. Most cities will have a range of options to choose from.

Tips to find the best senior living communities near you

  • Check the ratings. Senior apartments, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and other care communities all have detailed ratings you can use to get an idea of what kind of community they are and how good the care is. U.S. News and Health has one of the best rating systems. Use the rankings to check out any community you're interested in, but it's not the only thing you should use to make this decision.
  • Narrow down your list. Cross-reference every community you find that meets all or most of your criteria with the ratings and make a shortlist of communities to consider. Check their website, online reviews and talk to other people who live there or have family there to get a feeling for each community you're considering.
  • Visit as many of the communities as possible before making a decision. As great as the internet is, there's a lot more to learn than you can get from a "view photos and floor plans" link. Actually seeing what the place is like will help you see through their online attempts to make themselves look better. Visit each community you can, talk to the staff and the residents and get a feel for what the community is really like.

Once you've done all these things, you'll be in a good position to make a well-informed decision. If possible, you should pick one favorite community and one or two backup communities to apply for in case you're unable to get into your first pick or the waiting list is too long.

Creating a smooth transition

Transitioning smoothly into a new community is important for you and your family. The move itself is a stressful time for everyone involved, so it's best to prepare for it as far ahead of time as is reasonable. Here are some tips to make the transition go well.

1. Downsize ahead of time

You can't take everything with you into a senior community, so start paring down your belongings well before the move. Go through and discard papers, give important family pieces to those you want to have them and donate everything else you can't keep beforehand to make the move easier.

2. Transition before it's necessary

If the plan is for you to transition, do it before you're backed into a corner due to a health crisis and have to move. It'll be less stressful for everyone involved and easier to make the move and get comfortable. You also won't get into your preferred community if you wait, as many have long waiting lists.

3. Make your new place feel like home

Decorate it with beloved belongings and family photos. Put up decorations and mementos. Some places will even let you paint or put-up wallpaper. It's your home so make it feel like one!

4. Make friends and get involved

You're going to be spending a lot of time with not just your neighbors, but also the people who live in the community. When you come in, make friends with the staff and introduce them to your family. Spend time getting to know your neighbors. All types of retirement communities have activities and community engagement groups. Join a few that interest you and get to know other people and make friends. Staying busy and spending time with friends will make the transition easier and faster.

Additional resources

These are resources you can consult to help you find out more about the topics discussed in this guide.

The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional legal or financial advice as they may deem it necessary.