Assisted Living Overview

Assisted Living Basics

She can still get around pretty well on her own.
She can still get around pretty well on her own.

­About one in every 300 Americans lives in an assisted-living facility [source: Assisted Living Federation of America]. Assisted-living facilities are designed to help the infirm, disabled or elderly with tasks such as dressing or bathing while also helping that person maintain maximum personal independence and self-reliance. The facility is designed (and appropriately equipped) to help residents primarily with the daily challenges of living that many of us are able to take for granted: reading small medication labels, preparing and eating meals, and keeping up with housekeeping and laundry.

There seem to be about twice as many descriptive terms for assisted living facilities: "residential care," "retirement residences," "personal care," "enriched housing program" and "adult foster care," just to name a few. When looking for assisted living options, be sure that what's being described is what you're looking for. Often, these terms are somewhat interchangeable with other types of personal care, such as nursing homes.

Assisted-living homes aren't nursing homes -- just because your balance isn't what it used to be doesn't mean you're ready (or welcome) to receive bedside care and near-constant supervision. Assisted-living facilities don't provide around-the-clock care -- nursing homes do. But a person who no longer is fully able to take care of himself or herself (or be given a regular helping hand by a friend or relative) may be appalled at the thought of going into the "old folks' home." Assisted living also enables people who are in earlier stages of Alzheimer's or age-related dementia to receive care as needed, and not around the clock.

With more than 20,000 different assisted-living facilities in the United States, there is no universal "look" or design [source: Assisted Living Federation of America]. There could be on-site beauty salons and barbershops, horse stables, or swimming pools. Or, the facilities could have none of those amenities. However, they do share common caregiving features. So while one facility may have rooms that resemble those of the Chelsea Hotel and another facility has rooms that are actually large multi-roomed condominiums, both will offer services -- like laundry or meal preparation -- on a per-fee basis.

We'll discuss what type of care is provided through assisted living in the next section.