What IS a nursing home?


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“I think I need to move my dad into a nursing home.”

“My mom lives in a rest home.”

“My wife is doing well in her assisted living home.”

You hear all of these comments, and more, regularly used to describe different types of care communities. But what do they mean?

For starters, “rest home” and “nursing home” and often used interchangeably to describe too many care communities. The user of the word wants to get their point across, but often they are making it more confusing. 

A “nursing home” is typically a SKILLED NURSING FACILITY (SNF). A SNF is a care community typically devoted to serving people (of all ages, really) with short-term, heavy nursing care. While some people do actually live permanently at SNFs, the physical care needs are slightly heavier, usually, than the care needs in assisted living communities. 

People often use the phrase “nursing home” when they want to describe other types of care, too, like assisted living, personal care, or independent living. Generally, though, I recommend shying away from the use of this term—it’s too confusing!

“Independent Living” usually refers to a community where older adults can live with other older adults. These communities cater to people with the ability to mostly care for themselves. Many of the people living here drive their own cars. These communities offer on-site assistance by nurses, maintenance staff, etc., but they expect that the people living there do not need much help.

“Assisted Living” is pretty much the same thing as “Personal Care,” because “Personal Care” is a phrase only used in some states. Let’s put it this way: I’ve worked in three different communities, two of which were personal care, and one of which was assisted living…I have no idea what the difference was. Someone once told me that “personal care” was supposed to be for people who needed less help than in assisted living, but there was absolutely no difference in the actual practice of it. Both of these communities cater to people with both physical and mental (dementia) needs.

“Home Care” can also be considered long-term care. Home care means that a person is taken care of in their home. This can be with an agency, a family member or friend, or with a combination of the two.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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