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Assisted Living vs. Memory Care: What’s the Difference?

Merritt Whitley
By Merritt WhitleyOctober 30, 2020
Elderly couple putting together a puzzle with a younger woman.

About 70% of adults older than 65 will need long-term care at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Many among those requiring senior care will have some type of cognitive decline or memory loss. In fact, nearly 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and about 10 million new cases are diagnosed each year, according to the World Health Organization. 

If you’re looking for long-term care for an aging loved one, you’re probably faced with difficult decisions . Senior living varies greatly in terms of levels of care, amenities, staff training, and cost.

Assisted living and memory care facilities are two popular and fast-growing types of senior living, but what’s the difference between these two options? Before understanding how to decide between assisted living and memory care, it’s important to learn about the unique benefits each of these care options offer.

What’s the difference between assisted living and memory care?

Assisted living and memory care offer many of the same services, including housing, meals, and help with activities of daily living (ADLs), like bathing, grooming, and using the toilet. However, memory care also specializes in caring for seniors with memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia. This means memory care facilities and staff are well-equipped to help seniors with dementia maintain cognitive skills a sense of self, and quality of life for as long as possible.

Understand the differences between assisted living and memory care to make the best choice for your aging loved one.


Assisted living communities may offer safety features like in-room emergency alert systems and daily check-ins. But for seniors with memory loss, increased safety is a top priority and major concern. This is because wandering, aggression, and falls are common but dangerous dementia behaviors.

A secure environment with locked entrances and exits to prevent wandering is a key feature of memory care facilities. Many communities also have other tools to keep wandering residents safe, such as keypad entries, obscured exits, and doorbells.

In addition, memory care communities offer calming therapies to reduce agitation and confusion that may lead to aggression and self-injury. Layouts are designed to prevent falls that may be caused by obstacles or confusion.

Staff training and care

Staff members at assisted living and memory care facilities are experienced in caring for seniors and supporting residents with day-to-day tasks. However, memory care staff also receive regular, thorough training to provide 24-hour, person-centered care and supervision for people with memory loss.

Staff at memory care facilities understand how to effectively and compassionately prevent and manage difficult dementia behaviors, like wandering and aggression. They also understand the importance of encouraging residents to stay as independent as possible while providing the support they need.

Memory care offers a lower staff-to-resident ratio than assisted living and other senior care types. This helps ensure memory care residents receive more one-on-one attention throughout the day.


Amenities vary greatly from one community to the next, but some assisted living communities may offer:

  • Gyms
  • Beauty salons and barber shops
  • Outdoor spaces, like gardens or courtyards
  • Pet-friendly accommodations
  • Transportation services
  • Library and game room
  • Arts and crafts studio

Memory care communities may also offer amenities like enclosed courtyards or gardens to prevent wandering, spas or relaxation rooms, a library, arts and crafts studio, and more. Most importantly, memory care facilities feature unique layouts and design to help orient residents and reduce confusion. Design elements in memory care communities may include:

  • Clearly defined shared spaces
  • Color-coded walls to make it easier for those with memory loss to find their way
  • Outdoor gardens to prevent patients from feeling trapped or confined

Some communities also place memory boxes outside of residents’ doors with personalized memorabilia to guide them and make them feel at home.

Activities and therapies

Assisted living is designed for active seniors who may need some help with everyday tasks. With this demographic, assisted living communities offer plenty of opportunities for socialization for seniors. A wide-range of planned activities is often available to appeal to different interests, including exercise classes, book clubs, bingo, karaoke, outings, and more.

Memory care offers both group and individual activities and therapies for seniors with memory loss. Activities are designed to help seniors maintain cognitive skills, and are scheduled carefully to provide a sense of comfort and routine for residents.

Many memory care facilities provide personalized care featuring activities tailored to residents’ interests, and programs that often encompass all aspects of health — including physical, mental, and spiritual.

Memory-enhancing therapies at memory care communities may include:

  • Music therapy, which promotes relaxation and reduces agitation in seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia
  • Art therapy, which may help slow cognitive decline
  • Reminiscence therapy, which uses senses like smell, taste, touch, and sight to help seniors remember people, events, and places
  • Pet therapy for companionship


Many factors affect the cost of assisted living and memory care, including location, room size, whether a space is shared, and what services are provided. Beyond that, costs are calculated a little differently for these two care types.

  • Assisted living communities generally charge a base monthly rate, which covers room and board with three meals a day, most activities (outings may cost extra), weekly housekeeping, and transportation to and from medical appointments. Help with ADLs is often an additional charge, depending on how much assistance a senior needs. The median monthly cost of assisted living for a one-bedroom apartment is $4,000 a month. However, pricing varies based on the community and location, and may range anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 a month.
  • Memory care communities or units offer specialized care and nursing services that regular assisted living communities don’t. This means the cost of memory care tends to be higher, with a monthly median price of $5,250. However, this varies based on the community and location, and may range anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 or more a month.

Assisted Living vs. Memory Care: What services are offered?

ServicesAssisted LivingMemory CareHelp with ADLsxxMeal servicexxMedication managementxxCare coordinationxxHousekeeping and laundry servicesxxExercise classesxxTransportation to appointmentsxxSpecialized care for dementia and memory lossx24-hour care and supervisionxSecured entrances and exits to prevent wanderingxMemory-enhancing therapiesXLow staff-to-resident ratioXUnique layouts to reduce confusionx

Who can benefit from assisted living?

Older adults who are active, but need nutritious meals and help with daily activities such as bathing, dressing, or using the toilet, may benefit from assisted living. Seniors who wish for a convenient, maintenance-free lifestyle, with opportunities to stay engaged and connected with a community of like-minded peers may also enjoy the lifestyle at an assisted living community.

Who can benefit from memory care?

Some seniors with early- to middle-stage dementia may do well at an assisted living facility, but as the disease progresses and symptoms worsen, many families opt for memory care. The security and physical layout of memory care facilities provide a pleasant, safe environment that is easy to navigate and helps reduce confusion and agitation.

Memory-enhancing therapies and specialized care help seniors with memory loss maintain their cognitive skills as long as possible. Seniors with memory loss also benefit from round-the-clock care and supervision, enhanced security measures, and secured entrances and exits to prevent wandering.

Combining memory care and assisted living

It’s also possible to find memory care in an assisted living facility. Many assisted living communities have specialized care units for residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

These units usually provide 24-hour supervised care in a separate wing or floor of a residential facility, along with all the therapies and amenities of memory care. This means a senior with early-stage dementia may be able to move first to assisted living and later transition to memory care at the same community as their disease progresses. This may ease the move to memory care and enable aging adults to maintain friendships and staff relationships from assisted living.

How to decide between assisted living and memory care

Assisted living may be a good fit for your loved one if memory loss is not an immediate concern. It’s a great choice for seniors who are relatively independent and social, but may require some help throughout the day.

If cognitive decline is a concern, however, ask yourself the following questions to determine the best fit for your aging relative:

  1. Does my loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia wander frequently?
  2. Do they show combative behavior such as yelling or hitting?
  3. Does my relative need a lot of direction throughout the day?
  4. Do they take things that don’t belong to them?
  5. Does my loved one need 24-hour supervision?
  6. Does my aging relative experience sundown syndrome?
  7. Does my family member need a lot of help with mobility? Do they walk independently, or require a walker or wheelchair they can’t use on their own?
  8. Do they get lost in familiar places?
  9. Does my loved one forget to lock or shut doors?
  10. Do they leave on stoves or create other fire hazards?
  11. Has their judgment become impaired to the point where they’re inappropriate in their dress, speech, or behavior?
  12. Has my loved one become withdrawn?
  13. Do they continuously misplace objects or have to retrace their steps?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, or if you’re concerned about your loved one’s safety, memory care might be the best option for your family member.

If you’re not sure which care option is the right fit, contact our Senior Living Advisors. They’re senior living experts who will listen to your family’s needs and concerns to help you find the right senior care choice for your loved one.

Merritt Whitley
Merritt Whitley
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