top

How “Memory Care” for Dementia / Alzheimer’s Differs from Assisted Living

Did you know?

There are free advisors available who help families locate memory care residences that match their loved ones' care needs, preferences and budget.  Get help finding care here.

Introduction
Unfortunately, the natural progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as other forms of dementia, will result in the need for care for your loved one.  Depending on one’s stage of Alzheimer’s / dementia, and his or her ability to function, the level of care and supervision that is required varies.  For most families, this means some form of residential care. This is where assisted living and “memory care,” also referred to as Special Care Units (SCUs) or Alzheimer’s Care Units, come into play.  This article investigates how memory care differs from regular assisted living.  Those seeking information about paying for memory care should begin here.  

Assisted Living Facilities (Communities)
While those with early-stage Alzheimer’s can function independently, those who are in the middle-stage require some supervision and care. This is where assisted living becomes a good option. In assisted living facilities, individuals generally live in a private studio, private apartment, or a shared apartment, and have staff available to assist them 24-hours / day. This type of living arrangement is ideal for those who are still able to live with some independence, but do require assistance with activities of daily living, such as doing light housecleaning, bathing, dressing, and mobility. Medication management, transportation to and from doctor’s appointments, and social activities are also offered at assisted living facilities. In addition, there will be a dining hall where residents gather to eat meals.  

Memory Care Units
For individuals with dementia who require a higher level of skilled care and supervision, memory care units are an ideal option. These units offer both private and shared living spaces.  Sometimes they exist as a wing within an assisted living facility or nursing home or they can operate as stand-alone residences. Twenty-four hour, supervised care is provided by staff trained to care for the specific needs and demands of dementia patients. Memory care units offer the same services as do assisted living facilities, in addition to activities that are intended to stimulate the memory of those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias and possibly slow the progression of the disease. Activities may involve music, arts and crafts, games, etc.  

Physical Differences Between Memory Care and Assisted Living
Memory care units are typically architecturally designed to meet the specific needs of Alzheimer’s patients. Unlike some assisted living facilities, memory care units do not have individual kitchens for their residents. This is to keep the stress of those with dementia at a minimum.
 
While some assisted living facilities do have secure areas to accommodate those with mild dementia, memory care units put an extra emphasis on security to prevent patients from wandering, which is common in those with more advanced dementia. Many locations offer a secure outside area, so that patients can still enjoy being outdoors, while being unable to leave the property.
 
Since individuals with dementia may easily become stressed and confused, a special emphasis on creating a relaxing environment is common in memory care units. This may be done by creating a place where residents can gather, such as a television room, painting the halls with bright, colorful paint, and featuring a lot of natural light.  
Another common manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease is a lack of appetite, so some facilities may have a fish tank displayed in the dining room. This is because studies have found that something as simple as watching fish swim can stimulate one’s appetite.  

Other Differences
Generally, safety checks are done more frequently in memory care units, and some residences even utilize tracking bracelets that will sound an alarm if the resident goes too near an exit. Memory care units also tend to follow a more rigid scheduling structure, since those with dementia can easily become stressed in unfamiliar environments and generally do better with routine. 

It’s common for those with Alzheimer’s to have a lack of appetite, so memory care units put forth considerable effort to design meals to address this issue. This may be done by creating a contrast between the color of the food and the plate on which it is served so that residents can easily see their food or by offering flexibility with dishes. 
Extra safety measures are also taken on memory care units to ensure the safety of their residents. Examples include locking up items that are poisonous, such as shampoo, laundry detergent, and mouthwash containing alcohol.  

Skills / Training of Staff
In assisted living, staff is trained to assist patients with their activities of daily living, such as helping an individual to bathe and offering assistance with changing clothes. In memory care units, staff are trained to assist with activities of daily living, as well as are trained to handle the specific needs of those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. This training includes understanding how the disease manifests, knowing why dementia patients may exhibit disruptive behavior, how to respond to it, and how to communicate with individuals with dementia.

 
Staff to Patient Ratio
For assisted living facilities, there currently is no nationally set guidelines as far as what is an appropriate staff to patient ratio. This is left up to individual communities to determine the “sufficient” ratio to best meet the needs of their program and residents. (This may be governed by the state in which one resides). That being said, memory care units do require a higher staff to patient ratio in order to adequately provide the care needed for one with dementia. An ideal staff to resident ratio is 1 staff member to 5 residents, but again, the staff to patient ratio is not nationally governed, and 1 staff member to 6 residents is commonly seen.  It is worth noting that even in well-run, properly-staffed memory care units, the needs of an individual resident may exceed what the staff can offer.  In these situations, the family may be asked to pay for several hours of outside care assistance each day. 

Total Number of Residents
Assisted living communities offer a number of options as far as size. There are small communities that house four to six people, medium communities that house 11 to 25 people, large communities that house 26 to 100 people, and even communities that house over 100 people. As with the size of assisted living communities, memory care units also range in size from small to large.  Although memory care with 100 residents is rather rare.  The number of residents has little impact on cost.  Some persons with dementia will feel more comfortable with a greater number of fellow residents and others with fewer.  Families should choose accordingly. 

Stand-Alone Memory Care versus Memory Care Wings
Stand-along memory care units are generally better designed to specifically meet the needs of individuals with Alzheimer’s or related dementias. Often these type of residences are designed architecturally to make occupants feel as comfortable as possible. An example is designing the facility in a circular layout. This is done because those with advanced dementia often feel an increased level of stress when approaching a barrier in their environment, such as a hallway that comes to an end. This also allows residents to safely wander. 

Costs
For both assisted living and memory care, several variables come into play when it comes to cost. These include the geographic area in which one lives, whether one has a private room or a shared living space, and the amount of care service one requires. However, due to the specialized dementia care that is offered at memory care units, this type of care is overall more costly than assisted living. On average, one can expect to pay approximately $3,300 / month for assisted living and $5,000 / month to reside in a memory care unit.  More specific regional cost information for dementia care is available using this regional Cost of Care Calculator.

 
Research
When searching for an assisted living facility or a memory care unit, it’s important that one thoroughly do their research. Since residences vary on services and care provided, number of occupants and staff, layout of the community, cost, and so forth, it’s important to find a home that best meets your loved one’s needs.  This process can be overwhelming.  Fortunately, free assistance is available to help families locate and evaluate assisted living and memory care residences.  Get free help here.