Researching senior living communities for a parent, spouse or grandparent can be confusing. Not only do you need to assess which facility meets your loved one’s needs, but there’s also industry-specific terminology. For example, assisted living communities offer some of the same services as skilled nursing centers. Are the settings interchangeable? (Hint: they’re not). It’s important to understand the key differences between assisted living facilities vs. skilled nursing centers to make the best choice for your loved one.

That’s why we’re breaking down the distinction between these two senior living options plus frequently asked questions and common misconceptions. 

Differences Between Assisted Living vs. Skilled Nursing

A primary difference between assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities is the level of care provided and type of resident they cater to. A candidate for assisted living is not the same as a candidate for skilled nursing. 

The Ideal Resident for Assisted Living:

Relatively independent older adults choose assisted living communities. The resident’s state of health doesn’t require daily, specialized care from a medical provider, i.e., nurse or doctor.   They live in comfortable apartments and benefit from services including housekeeping, laundry and meal preparation. A full schedule of social and entertainment activities helps residents to socialize and try new experiences. Some communities, like Vineyard, offer care options for bathing, dressing or medication management.

The Ideal Resident for Skilled Nursing: 

In contrast, skilled nursing facilities have round-the-clock nursing support services. A good candidate for skilled nursing needs high-level, regular medical care. When individuals can’t care for themselves due to disability, injury, surgery or memory loss, the staff assists with daily activities as well as provides medical care and treatment. Residents live in a single or double room.

Assisted Living vs. Skilled Nursing Misconceptions  

Understanding the difference between assisted living and skilled nursing facilities is the first step in choosing a care community. It also helps to debunk the myths about assisted living vs. skilled nursing—and there are many out there! 

Here are a few common misconceptions our staff has to clear up all the time, as well as common questions about the differences between assisted living vs. skilled nursing. 

Does assisted living provide different types of care than skilled nursing? 

This is one of the biggest misunderstandings we deal with at Vineyard. And the short answer is yes. 

Assisted living is for healthy, active seniors that don’t need 24/7 access to nurses or medical care. While assisted living communities do employ healthcare professionals, they don’t provide the same level of specialized care as in skilled nursing facilities. The staff acts more as a liaison that coordinates needed care between residents, primary care physicians and other health professionals. 

It’s confusing because assisted living communities can (and many do) provide additional services like medication management, bathing or ambulation. They also may offer on-site physical therapy or occupational therapy (typically through partnerships with local health care professionals). However, they don’t have the same higher level of specialized medical care as skilled nursing. Additionally, they might not have registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs) accessible and on-call at all times. 

On the other hand, skilled nursing caters to residents who need regular medical attention or daily therapies/treatments from a registered nurse. Residents typically need intensive care, regular assistance and supervision.

Is skilled nursing short-term or long-term?

The term skilled nursing center is sometimes also used for rehabilitation centers. The truth is, skilled nursing can provide short-term rehabilitative care after a hospitalization or long-term care. Work with your health care provider to find the best option for your loved one. 

In comparison, assisted living is typically a long-term living plan, as residents move into an apartment and bring their own possessions. 

Do residents lose independence or privacy in senior communities? 

Adults who have managed their households for decades worry that moving to a senior community means losing independence. 

That’s not the case with assisted living communities. In fact, it means freedom from chores like yard work and grocery shopping. Residents have an apartment where they can retreat in solitude if they wish. There’s more time to pursue new interests without the responsibility of household maintenance. Most communities can even arrange transportation to medical appointments and other outings.

With skilled nursing, yes, residents do lose some control over their daily tasks. However, due to health-related conditions and limitations, they need that additional professional support. Additionally, some skilled nursing facilities offer double rooms, which means sharing a space with another resident. 

Where will residents enjoy more activities?

As assisted living typically caters to more healthy and active residents. As such, they may offer a more robust activity and programming calendar. But that’s not to say that skilled nursing communities don’t also provide calendars of social activities and events. The options might be slightly more limited to accommodate the health-related needs of residents. Additionally, skilled nursing staff might provide in-room activities or pastimes for residents who cannot participate in group options. 

Aren’t meals bland in senior communities?

The expectation of tasteless food is rooted in history. Years ago, hospitals and care facilities served bland cafeteria-style food. In today’s senior communities—assisted living and skilled nursing alike—chefs develop menus of healthy, delicious options. 

When it comes to assisted living vs. skilled nursing, both options will generally cater meals to the unique dietary needs of their residents. 

One key difference is that skilled nursing likely provides more in-room dining experiences due to the medical needs of residents, whereas assisted living communities often offer multiple dining locations.  

Assisted Living vs. Skilled Nursing: Do Your Homework

Now that you understand the difference between assisted living and skilled nursing, the challenge is to find a new home where your loved one will thrive. Use the above information to assess the communities you visit. When older adults receive the professional support they need, you can take the stressful aspect of caregiving off your plate and focus more on spending quality, meaningful time together.