Activities & Instrumental Activities of Daily Living - Definitions, Importance and Assessments


What are the Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)?

The Activities of Daily Living are a series of basic activities performed by individuals on a daily basis necessary for independent living at home or in the community. There are many variations on the definition of the activities of daily living but most organizations agree there are 5 basic categories. 

1. Personal hygiene - bathing, grooming and oral care
2. Dressing - the ability to make appropriate clothing decisions and physically dress oneself
3. Eating - the ability to feed oneself though not necessarily to prepare food
4. Maintaining continence - both the mental and physical ability to use a restroom
5. Transferring - moving oneself from seated to standing and get in and out of bed

Whether or not an individual is capable of performing these activities on their own or if they rely on a family caregiver to perform the ADLs serves a comparative measure of their independence.


What are the Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs)?

IADLs are actions that are important to being able to live independently but are not necessarily required activities on a daily basis.  The instrumental activities are more subtle than the Activities of Daily Living. They can help determine with greater detail the level of assistance required by an elderly or disabled person. The IADLs include:

1. Basic communication skills - such as using a regular phone, mobile phone, email or the Internet
2. Transportation - either by driving oneself, arranging rides or the ability to use public transportation
3. Meal preparation - meal planning, preparation, storage and the ability to safely use kitchen equipment
4. Shopping - the ability to make appropriate food and clothing purchase decisions
5. Housework - doing laundry, cleaning dishes and maintaining a hygienic place of residence
6. Managing medications - taking accurate dosages at the appropriate times, managing re-fills and avoiding conflicts
7. Managing personal finances - operating within a budget, writing checks, paying bills and avoiding scams


Why are the ADLs and IADLs Important?

Many eldercare financial assistance programs use the inability to perform a specific number of the activities of daily living as eligibility criteria. 

Measuring an individual’s ability to perform the ADLs and IADLs is important not just in determining the level of assistance required but as a metric for a variety of services and programs related to caring for the elderly and for those with disabilities.

Many state-funded, non-Medicaid programs such as California’s In-Home Supportive Services and New York’s EISEP Program use an inability to perform 2 or 3 activities of daily living as one of the eligibility criteria for participation in their assistance programs.

Medicaid often requires elderly participants to be qualified for nursing home care and nursing home care qualification can be determined by how much assistance one requires with ADLs. While Medicare doesn’t pay for custodial or personal care, which most of the ADLs are considered, Medicare PACE programs which provide all-inclusive care for the elderly do considered them a factor.

Long term care insurance often uses an inability to perform the ADLs as a trigger for paying out on a policy. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) as well considers ADLs as a qualification factor.


Activities of Daily Living Checklist and the AARP developed the following worksheet as a tool to help families determine with which ADLs and IADLs their loved ones require assistance and how much assistance is needed.  To complete the checklist, enter the number of hours per week your loved one requires assistance to perform the activities in the left hand column.

Did You Know? There are over 400 programs nationwide that provide financial assistance to help care for an aging loved one. Find programs which can help your family.  


ADLs / IADLs Requires No
Oral Care        
Climbing Stairs        
Managing Medications        
Uses the Phone        
Managing Finances        
Passive Supervision (to prevent wandering or self-injury)        








Other ADL and IADL Scales

There are other related ADL measurements scales and tests. Two of which provide point scoring systems to help families to determine the types of and extent of care necessary. One can learn more about these at the following links.

Lawton IADL
Katz ADL Scale


Getting ADL Assessments

Some Area Agencies on Aging offer free activities of daily living assessments.  

There are several options available to families who wish to have an assessment of their loved one's ability to complete the activities of daily living.   Choosing amongst these options largely depends on the purpose for which one is having an activities of daily living assessment (also called a geriatric assessment).

For families who simply wish to have a scale by which to judge the ability of their loved one to function independently, there are multiple online geriatric assessment tools.  Many of these are intended for use by untrained professionals.  A family member answers a series of questions about their loved one who requires assistance, tallies up a point total and can compare their results to other individuals.  These online tools are free to use, one can get started here.

For a more formal ADL assessment, many families turn either to their family doctor or to an occupational therapist.  This type of assessment is more focused on their medical well being than the free online tools which tend to focus on non-medical care needs.  Depending on the situation, Medicare may pay for ADL assessment.

The third objective families often have when getting an ADL assessment is to determine if their loved one is functionally eligible for a government assistance program such as Medicaid.   Local area agencies on aging (AAAs) often serve as the gateway to assistance programs and many of these will provide activities of daily living assessments as part of the application process.   One should contact their local area agencies on aging and inquire.