Glossary of Senior Living Terms

assisted livingDefinitions to help you distinguish between types of senior living communities.

People often communicate about senior living options using terms like "retirement home," "nursing home," or "assisted living facility." You may not know this, but these terms refer to specific types of senior living communities that are appropriate for individuals with different needs. If you are trying to find a fitting level of care for your loved one, this glossary should help you determine which type of senior living arrangement to pursue.

Alphabetical Glossary of Senior Living Terms

Active Adult Community

An active adult community is an age-restricted community, run by a homeowners association, where seniors own their own detached single-family homes and can come together to enjoy community amenities such as fitness centers, craft rooms, pools, spas, golf courses and game rooms. These senior living communities often draw younger retired people who enjoy independent living, but may benefit from small helps such as rambler-style homes, wider doorways and nearby social interaction.

Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)

Activities of daily living describe any normal aspect of self-care and maintenance that adults in senior living communities may at some point need assistance with. Typical ADLs include dressing, bathing, toileting, administering medication, eating and moving around. Other, more high-level ADLs can include meal preparation, money management and light housework.

Adult Day Care
Also called: Adult Day Services

Adult day care centers provide services for seniors who need help with activities of daily living, but who don’t need overnight accommodation. Day services often include skilled nursing help, planned social activities and outings, and transportation to appointments. Many seniors who live with family members utilize adult day services while their caregivers go to work or take a much-needed break. See also: Respite Care.

Aging in Place

Aging in place is a senior living philosophy that values the elderly person’s opportunity to remain in his preferred environment, with increasing support services or adaptations, until the end of his life. Assisted living facilities were founded with this philosophy in mind.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (also called Alzheimer disease and Alzheimer’s)is a common form of dementia, experienced mostly by people over the age of 65. It is a degenerative brain disease that causes memory loss and confusion. Memory care units at senior living communities treat this condition, as well as other forms of dementia, exclusively. See also: Dementia, Cognitive Impairment, and Memory Care.

Assisted Living Facility (ALFs)

Assisted living facilities are establishments that provide permanent housing to senior citizens who need some help with activities of daily living, but that do not need the round-the-clock nursing care provided in a nursing home. These senior living communities typically provide a lower aide to patient ratio, but many people choose ALFs as their senior living option because of their focus on independence and dignity.


A senior caregiver is anyone who cares for the needs of an elderly person in a non-professional environment on a regular basis. Some people hire in-home caregivers, however the term usually refers to family members or friends who provide the service free of charge. Caregiving is a rewarding but taxing responsibility that often restricts the life of the caregiver significantly.

Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive impairment refers to any loss of cognitive ability beyond what is expected as a part of the regular aging process. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are common causes of cognitive impairment in the aging population. Senior living communities often offer special services for patients suffering from cognitive impairment. See also: Memory Care.

Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC)

Continuing care retirement communities are large establishments where seniors can find many different levels of care, from active senior living, to assisted living, to skilled nursing. The quintessential offspring of the "aging in place" movement, CCRCs offer healthy social interaction, appropriate care, and continuity of residence. They are also a good option for spouses who need different levels of care.

Custodial Care

Custodial care is any care received by an elderly person that is not medical in nature or does not require a licensed medical professional to administer. Custodial care can be offered at home or within different levels of senior living communities. Most custodial care consists of help with activities of daily living (ADLs). See also: In-Home Care.


Dementia is a loss of cognitive ability following a brain injury or as a result of a degenerative disorder. It is considered a syndrome because of its numerous causes. Memory care units at senior living communities and skilled nursing facilities specialize in treating and aiding those who suffer from dementia. See also: Memory Care and Cognitive Impairment.

Elder Care

Elder care (also spelled in one word, eldercare) refers to the whole idea of caring for the aging population. All senior living communities provide some form of elder care, and each term in this glossary is an elder care term.


Gerontologists are scientists of gerontology, professionals who specialize in the social, psychological and biological needs and problems associated with aging. Their research and findings help shape the world of elder care.

Hospice Care
Also called: Palliative Care

Hospice care is special medical care focused toward making terminally ill or dying patients as comfortable as possible in their last remaining days. It is covered by Medicare and Medicaid, and can be provided at home or in other senior living communities, including assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities.

Independent Living

Independent living refers to those elderly people who are able to maintain a healthy life in their own home, without significant caregiving or medical needs. Most seniors who live independently do so outside of any kind of senior living environment. Independent living communities are also available for active seniors who want peer support but may need less care than those in an assisted living facility.

Intermediate Care

Intermediate care is a level of care for elderly patients with chronic medical problems that need assistance with activities of daily living but do not require the level of nursing care that many patients in nursing homes require. It is a level above assisted living, and is often provided at nursing homes.

In-Home Care
Also called: Domiciliary Care

Home care often refers to custodial care for the elderly in a home environment. In-home care can be provided by family caregivers or medical professionals. The term "home health care" often refers to in-home care provided by medical professionals.

Long-Term Care

Long-term care refers to the services delivered to aging individuals who need help with activities of daily living. It can be administered at home, in senior living communities, or in skilled nursing facilities. Patients in assisted living facilities, home-health situations and nursing homes all receive long-term care.


Medicaid is a government program that helps the elderly pay for health services and long-term care in different senior living environments. Medicaid benefits are limited to low-income individuals who demonstrate a certain amount of need. If your loved one will use Medicaid to help finance her long-term care, make sure you find senior living communities that accept Medicaid.


Medicare is a government program that provides medical insurance to all senior citizens in the U.S. age 65 or older. Medicare Part A covers hospital expenses, including home health care and hospice fees, as well as temporary nursing home stays. Medicare Part B is elective additional health coverage that covers other medical services for a fee.

Memory Care Facility

Memory Care facilities are specialized living arrangements for people who struggle with cognitive impairment, and who can benefit from extra protection in an assisted living or nursing home environment. While some facilities specialize exclusively in memory care services, many senior living communities have special memory care units or floors that offer special services and care for those with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive impairment.

Nursing Home
Also called: Skilled Nursing Facilities, Convalescent Homes or Rest Homes

Nursing homes provide in-depth medical care for elderly patients who need significant help with activities of daily living. They often provide single- or shared-occupancy rooms, personalized professional health care, planned social activities, meals and medicine administration. These senior living options range in size from small to very large, and offer a variety of services. See also

Rehabilitative Care Centers

Rehabilitative care centers provide short-term services to elderly patients recovering from debilitating events, such as strokes and falls. Residents of senior living communities may be required to relocate temporarily to a rehab center to receive specialized occupational or physical therapy services.

Respite Care

Respite care is a service for caregivers that provides relief so they can get a much-needed break from the demands of caregiving. Adult day care, as well as in-home care, many senior living communities and some custodial care services all offer respite care. In-home caregivers are encouraged to form a relationship with a respite care service for emergencies or intermittent help.

Retirement Home

Retirement homes are senior living communities with apartment-style rooms in which residents receive some form of health care, custodial care, and assistance with activities of daily living. Assisted living facilities are sometimes referred to as retirement homes.