How To Choose The Perfect Senior Living Community

It’s a problem most of us will face—how to choose the perfect senior living community. 

Maybe it’s for your loved one, for yourself, or from someone you consider to be family. As we all get older, there will likely come a time when the living situation of someone close to us will have to be reconsidered. 

It’s not an easy responsibility. And there might be several new and unfamiliar terms to figure out. 

  • Is a retirement community the same thing as a senior living community? 
  • How about an age-restricted community or a “lifestyle” retirement apartment? 
  • What’s the difference between these places? 

While “retirement community” is a general term created to cover different senior housing options, there are specific community types—independent living communities, active senior communities, or age-restricted communities (to name a few)—that may or may not suit your needs. 

Each of these types of communities caters to older adults who want to lead a self-sufficient life in their golden years. But they also differ in significant ways. 

Ultimately, the question always comes down to how to choose the perfect senior living community for your loved one’s needs. 

Why I chose to write about senior living

My name is Adam H. Douglas. I’ve been writing about and investigating senior living communities for over five years. Several of my article and blog posts about caring for those with dementia have been viewed millions of times. 

I’ve also been there, personally. 

Between my aged parents, who were struck with debilitating terminal cancer only two years apart, and witnessing my Grandmother’s slow deterioration into the fog of Alzheimer’s, I’ve seen the good, the bad, the in-between, and even the great of senior living communities.

Now, I want to bring what I’ve learned to you.

As I said earlier, making these sorts of decisions isn’t likely easy. Any serious, life-changing adjustment to your or your loved one’s living situation can be both daunting and highly stressful. 

But it doesn’t have to be. You can arm yourself with knowledge and the best available advice. With the right tools in hand, you can face this challenge with greater confidence and a positive mindset that will see you through this challenge.

What to expect with this guide

In this guide, I’ll give you a comprehensive overview of the different types of senior living communities that cater to every kind of senior living scenario. 

These are the questions I’ll answer that are most pressing for those considering a retirement or senior living community.

  1. What—exactly—is a retirement community?
  2. What are the categories of retirement communities? 
  3. How can you choose between these different types of senior living communities? 
  4. How can I check to see if a community is right for me or my loved one?
  5. How can I afford a senior living community?

Here we go. 

What is a retirement community?

Technically, a retirement community can be any place designed just for seniors to live and reside. What this house or apartment might look like, where it’s located, and how much it costs will vary significantly. 

However, what I’ve found is that all senior retirement communities offer four main features: security, convenience, senior-focused amenities, and—perhaps most importantly—a sense of community.


“Security” ranges from features like gated facilities to in-home emergency alarm response features and everything in between. This can also include internal security features, like monitored exits to prevent patients from wandering away—an all-too-common worry for those with dementia. 


“Conveniences” might include neighboring hospitals, shopping centers, an on-site restaurant, or nearby public transportation. Within the residence itself, homes or apartment units may feature easy-to-reach cabinet doors, higher toilets, open and single-level floor plans, and other benefits to make senior living easier.

Senior-focused amenities

Pretty much everyone’s favorite subject—this is where the fun comes in!

Most of the amenities a senior residence offers are based on age, abilities, and common interests of adults aged 55 and older. 

These features might include fitness centers, craft classes, billiards rooms, walking trails, indoor/outdoor pools, tennis courts, golf courses, religious services, game nights, and many other ways to stay active. 


The benefits of an environment where you can connect with other residents who are in the same stage of life are significant. A recent study published by the Journals of Gentrology showed that social interaction with a “diverse array of social ties” was linked to more positive outcomes, “including better physical health.”

Another study, this time from Penn State researchers at the Center for Healthy Aging, found those between the ages of 70 to 90 who reported an increase in “frequent, pleasant social interaction,” was followed by a better cognitive performance for the following three days. 

During a period of our lives where security, amenities, and mobility becomes more of a concern, it’s no wonder why communities that address these problems directly are in such high demand.

Next, let’s break down the different categories and sub-categories for senior living facilities.

Categories of senior living communities

How to choose the perfect senior living community — categories

The most common type of senior retirement communities in America can be divided into four main categories:

  • Assisted living retirement communities
  • Independent living retirement communities
  • Age-restricted retirement communities
  • Lifestyle retirement communities

NOTE: You’ll notice that I didn’t address specific medical assistance scenarios like Respite Care, Assisted Living, Personal Home Care, Dementia Care, Nursing Homes, or Hospice Care. I consider those places separate subjects unto themselves because a medical professional (like your family doctor) should be directly involved in advising what sort of care is needed.

So, for now, let’s strictly focus on the first tier of senior living communities. 

Assisted living communities

Assisted living communities provide moderate care to seniors who are able live in their own spaces and who are mostly responsible for their own well-being. 

These facilities will assist with basic tasks such as meal preparation, taking medication, or transportation. They may also offer specialized care for certain conditions but do not provide healthcare services directly.

Independent living communities

Independent living communities are more tailored for active and healthy seniors who can live independently. But they also frequently offer useful and fun amenities such as clubhouses, gyms, yard maintenance, housekeeping, and security. 

Most of these communities also have age restrictions and offer transportation, laundry service, group meals, and social and cultural activities. Residents don’t have to take advantage of these services, but they are there if they choose to use them. 

Age-restricted retirement communities

Age-restricted retirement communities are marketed to specific age groups, such as 55+ communities. These can be broken down into sub-categories as well. 

For example, “age-qualified” communities mandate that at least 80% of the occupied units must have occupants over the age of 55, per the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Fair Housing Act. In addition, the regulations prohibit permanent residents under the age of 19. 

“Age-targeted” communities, on the other hand, focus on the senior demographic with amenities and conveniences while also allowing residents of all ages to live in the communities.

Lifestyle retirement communities

As baby boomers everywhere cross over into their senior years, retirement communities continue to rise in demand. 

As a result, there is a variety of specialized senior living options available today to suit different lifestyles and preferences. 

Here are some examples: 

  • University and college-based retirement communities provide seniors with learning opportunities and can be found near college campuses. 
  • Faith-based retirement communities that offer religious and spiritual care in addition to typical senior living amenities. 
  • Golf retirement communities, located in states like Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina, are places where seniors can enjoy an active lifestyle on a golf course. 
  • Boating retirement communities offer a simple life on the water for active seniors. 
  • Artist retirement communities are places that provide creative outlets for seniors, including showcases and education for artists. 
  • LGBTQ+ retirement communities that support older adults who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. 
  • Manufactured/modular home communities that offer senior-friendly amenities and services—frequently at an affordable cost.

Also included in this category are luxury retirement apartments that offer seniors the opportunity to experience the comfort of a vacation-style community. These high-end living spaces typically consist of gourmet kitchens, housekeeping services, 24-hour concierge services, and even may include amenities like swimming pools and on-site golf courses to ensure residents live their best life.

There is also a sub-category of lifestyle communities called senior cooperative housing, which functions like a corporation where residents act as shareholders. By owning stock in the corporation, they’re able to live in a unit and enjoy shared spaces such as fitness rooms, libraries, and laundry facilities, including providing them a say in how the community operates.

Tips for how to choose the perfect senior living community

When deciding on which type of retirement community is best suited to meet your needs, it’s important to consider location, financial resources, level of care, and expectations. 

Location, location, location

Just like any real estate purchase, location becomes a big factor. Take into account the community’s proximity to things like your loved ones’ friends and family, amenities that interest them, their doctors or medical services that match their needs, and the best possible weather that they prefer. 

While many older adults may opt for a warm-weather state that can provide functional and financial incentives, this is not a set-in-stone rule for all seniors. You might be surprised to find how varied seasonal weather can improve your or your loved one’s ability to thrive and enjoy life. 

Financial limitations

Unsurprisingly, transitioning to a retirement community can come with significant expenses. For financially secure and active seniors, they can select from various options, such as luxury retirement communities, active senior communities, or continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) across the country.

However, for seniors living on a fixed income, it’s essential to consider the costs associated with most CCRCs. (A little later on in this article, I’ll address the ways folks typically pay for these costs.)

CCRC fees

These typically include two primary fees: a one-time lump sum payment for housing and securing a spot within the facility (ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 in more modest retirement communities) and a monthly fee covering services like meals, housekeeping, and activities.

HUD options

For low-income seniors, affordable senior housing options are available. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and various nonprofit housing organizations offer low-income housing to seniors who meet specific eligibility criteria. 

If you qualify for a HUD housing voucher, you will pay no more than 30% of your adjusted income towards rent and utilities, with the government subsidizing the remaining amount.

Care requirements and changing needs

Retirement communities that primarily cater to active older adults may or may not provide assisted living services such as meals, laundry assistance, and help with activities of daily living (ADLs). 

In contrast, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) offer escalating care services and supervision to accommodate changing needs. For instance, you can transition from independent living to assisted living and eventually to a nursing home within the same community. 

This approach minimizes relocation and helps maintain social connections as care requirements increase. It’s essential to consider your current and future care needs and compare them with the services provided by a specific retirement community.

Expectations and preferences

Before you narrow down your choices, I strongly suggest you reflect on your reasons for wanting to move from your current living situation to a retirement community and what you hope to gain from the change. Having a clearer vision of your preferences and expectations of what sort of new living situation you would like will go a long way to help your decision. 

Create a checklist outlining your ideal retirement lifestyle, including desired amenities, social environment, and activities you’d like to engage in. Consider your new residence’s cost, size, layout, and atmosphere. 

Housing options

Some communities offer various housing options, such as townhomes, single-family homes, and apartments, while others may only provide one type of accommodation. Two common types of senior housing are retirement house communities and retirement apartment communities.

Retirement house communities 

Retirement house communities are excellent opportunities for older adults who want to live in single-family housing. This type of housing can be found in specialty communities, such as university-based retirement communities, senior golfing communities, senior living co-ops, and CCRCs

In these communities, you’ll have the autonomy of living in a stand-alone home while enjoying the benefits of a friendly community of like-minded older adults. 

Apartment communities

Retirement apartment communities offer a tighter-knit community since the units are connected, allowing residents to interact more regularly under familiar conditions. In these communities, specialty apartment managers may be hired to provide additional services, such as meal preparation or social activities. 

Low-income older adults might choose to live in apartments commonly known as Section 8, whereas luxury retirement communities offer upscale apartment units typically referred to as condos.

Touring senior living communities

Touring the retirement communities you are interested in is key to discovering which is the perfect fit for you. 

Sure, you could learn about a community by investigating them online or through its brochures—but visiting and conversing with residents will often yield invaluable insight. 

Here are some ideas and concepts you should consider while you tour the facility along with some questions you could ask. 

  1. To learn about the quality of life in the community, you should ask residents if they reside there year-round and how fulfilled they feel living there. 
  2. Ask the residents you meet if they’ve encountered any unexpected surprises or if there are aspects of the community they are not content with. 
  3. Inquire about the responsiveness and efficacy of property management in addressing issues or requests. 
  4. Regarding any homeowners associations (HOAs), inquire if residents attend meetings. If they do, how are they managed, and is there sufficient time for them to speak? 
  5. Determine if the developer of the community is financially sound and if there are plans for further development. 
  6. Assess the availability of resources for resolving any construction-related problems and research whether the same company has developed other communities.

Pro Tip: Take note of the rules and bylaws of the HOA. Determine if there are any restrictions on changing the property’s exterior or displaying certain objects in common areas. Also, find out if there is a reserve fund for recurring expenses such as repairing and replacing facilities like roofs and HVAC systems. 

If you’re unable to tour, contact a current resident or a representative of the HOA for the answers you need to make an informed decision.

Expenses and how to deal with them

Not surprisingly, the direct expenses you might incur for retirement communities can vary quite a bit.

Depending on the community, they may include:

  • Apartment rent, 
  • Lot rent in a senior mobile home park, 
  • Yearly or monthly fees for homeowners associations, 
  • Or maintenance of community spaces or activities. 

If you’re unsure how to cover these expenses, here are some common ways seniors use to pay for living in a retirement community: 

  1. Reverse mortgage: homeowners obtain a loan using their home equity to buy a new home in a retirement community 
  2. Sale of primary property: homeowners sell their former home to pay for their new one 
  3. Social Security and retirement income: the average Social Security benefit was $1,669 per month in 2022, which can be used to pay monthly apartment rent and HOA fees 
  4. Housing vouchers and assistance from nonprofit organizations: some low-income seniors may qualify for government vouchers or assistance with housing costs from nonprofit organizations, capped at 30% of their adjusted income
  5. Contributions from friends and family: depending on need and financial situation, support from friends and family may be necessary
  6. Combination of multiple methods: seniors can use a combination of various sources such as funds, savings, and investments to cover their monthly rent or assisted living 

How to choose the perfect senior living community—conclusion

When it comes to how to choose the perfect senior living community, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so take the time to thoroughly research what options are out there and what best suits your needs. 

Whether you decide to stay independent or sign up for assisted living, make sure you go through all the steps necessary to move into a safe and secure space. 

Lastly, financial resources can often dictate if and where you live later in life. Consider budgeting ahead of time so that you can invest in the senior living facility of your dreams. 

In the end, it’s important to find a home that offers peace of mind for both you and your loved ones. With a little patience and research, there’s plenty of housing out there that can meet all of everyone’s needs!

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