Assisted Living and Nursing Homes

As time goes by, individuals and families pass milestones on the continuum of care needed to preserve independence, personal safety, and dignity in later years. Fortunately, there are many options and levels of care to choose from. The challenge is knowing which level of care is the most appropriate.

What are the differences between assisted living and a nursing home?


Assisted living typically represents the first level of supportive care by providing personal assistance to otherwise independent adults. This often means help with the activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, dressing, toileting, and household tasks such as cooking and cleaning. Residents may have difficulty driving and need occasional help with transportation. Residents in an assisted living community usually have their own apartment. The goal of assisted living, essentially, is to preserve independence for as long as possible.

By contrast, a nursing home is for those who need daily, ongoing observation or continual care for more pronounced medical needs, or because they’ve become too fragile to manage daily life on their own. Nursing home residents usually reside in a private or semi-private room or suite, with a nurse’s station situated not far away.


This is often the determining factor in choosing between a nursing home or a residence in an assisted living community. If help with some of the basic activities of daily living is the extent of what’s needed  bathing, dressing, and meals, for instance  assisted living may be the answer. But if an individual requires daily therapy, IV medication, or the use of a ventilator, a nursing home is better equipped to meet those needs. 

One area that spans both assisted living and skilled nursing care is medication management. If you need help taking your medication accurately each day, both nursing homes and assisted living will provide it, though you may be charged extra for this service in assisted living.

Support Needed:

  • Daily living (bathing, dressing, food prep)
  • Mental health (depression or isolation)
  • Medication management
  • Social support
  • Managing personal finances

Things to Consider:

  • Are the needs primarily custodial or medical?
  • Has a professional medical assessment been completed recently?
  • Do the needs exceed what a family caregiver can reasonably deliver?
  • Is the need for nursing care temporary or permanent?

nursing home is normally the highest level of care outside a hospital.

Skilled nursing communities are designed for individuals who require full-time care, or assistance with most, if not all, activities of daily living. These communities are licensed and offer care by trained medical staff, such as a registered nurse or therapist, 24 hours a day.


Skilled nursing residences can feel more “institutional” than assisted living communities, but that’s changed in recent years. Skilled nursing residences in a continuing care retirement community have become less like hospital rooms and more like home. You should explore the options today by touring more than one community that provides long-term nursing care. Talk with residents. Ask questions. Observe carefully. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Do the same for a number of communities offering assisted living residences. Tour the apartments. Learn about the activities and programs offered. Eat in the assisted living dining venue if possible. Ask for references and testimonials of those whose family members live there. 


Nursing homes are typically required to have a registered nurse on-site eight hours each day. For assisted living residences, licensed practical nurses or registered nurses must be accessible and on call, but they’re not required to be on-site. Depending on the need for regular access to medical personnel, choosing skilled nursing may be your only option.


Assisted living provides privacy and the chance to extend one’s personal independence. It also offers customized care according to the needs of each resident. However, assisted living is not a nursing home. Residents have their own apartment with a partial kitchen, full living room, one or two bedrooms, and a private bathroom designed with the physical needs of seniors in mind.

Residents may keep their own furniture and belongings. Assisted living offers the safety and security of 24-hour support and access to care. Day or night, help is just a phone call away. You’re completely free to continue to do what you can for yourself and to participate socially in meals, events, and activities.

nursing home is the better choice for someone whose needs require full-time medical care or access to services and equipment that are more often found in a hospital than at home. Because nursing homes offer extensive care, they provide more stability and continuity of care to seniors who might otherwise spend extended periods of time in the hospital.

Which is right? 

Assisted living is more for someone who still has the desire and ability to be somewhat independent but may need assistance with the activities of daily living. Nursing homes are ideal for those who may need more care than an assisted living community can provide  those living with a health complication or who have limited mobility. A professional medical assessment is always advisable.