Assisted Living vs. Memory Care: What’s the Difference?
By Merritt WhitleyJuly 12, 2021
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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 who require 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 deciding between assisted living and memory care, it’s important to learn about the unique benefits each care level offers.
Assisted living vs. memory care: Understanding the difference
Assisted living and memory care senior living communities provide 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.
Learn more of 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 major concern, as wandering, aggression, and falls are common but dangerous dementia behaviors.
Environmental security is a key design feature of memory care facilities. This means locked entrances and exits, along with other wandering-preventative tools like keypad entries, obscured exits, and doorbells signaling entering and exiting. To avoid injuries from falls, facility layouts include design elements that minimize confusion. In addition, memory care communities offer calming therapies within soothing spaces to reduce agitation and confusion that may lead to aggression or self-injury.
Staff training and care
Staff members at both assisted living and memory care facilities have experience supporting residents with day-to-day tasks. But staff at memory care facilities are well-equipped and trained to provide 24-hour, person-centered care that helps seniors with dementia maintain cognitive skills, a sense of self, and quality of life for as long as possible.
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 balance of encouraging residents to stay as independent as possible while providing the support they need. Even more, with a higher staff-to-resident ratio than assisted living and other senior care types, memory care gives residents more one-on-one attention throughout the day.
Amenities vary greatly from one community to the next, but many assisted living communities offer:
Beauty salons and barber shops
Outdoor spaces, like gardens or courtyards
Library and game room
Arts and crafts studio
Spas or relaxation rooms
Memory care communities often feature many of these same amenities, but most importantly, you’ll find unique layouts and design features to help orient residents and reduce confusion. Design elements in memory care communities may include:
Clearly defined common areas
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
Increased opportunities for personalization, like memory boxes outside of residents’ doors to guide them and make them feel at home
Activities and therapies
Assisted living staff organize communities around active seniors who may need some help with everyday tasks. With this demographic in mind, assisted living offers plenty of social opportunities. Even better, a wide range of planned activities — including exercise classes, book clubs, games, bingo, karaoke, outings, and more — is often available to appeal to different interests.
Memory care offers both group and individual activities and therapies specially designed for seniors with memory loss. Staff design activities to help maintain cognitive skills and schedule calendars carefully to provide a sense of comfort and routine for residents.
Many memory care facilities provide personalized care, activities tailored to residents’ interests, and programs that often encompass all aspects of health: the 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 other types of 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 each care type.
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 is needed. The median monthly cost of assisted living for a one-bedroom apartment is $4,300 a month. However, this varies based on the community and location, and pricing may range anywhere from $3,000 to $6,500 a month.
Memory care communities or units offer specialized care and nursing services that assisted living communities typically don’t offer. 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 pricing may range anywhere from $3,800 to $7,395 or more a month.
Talk with a Senior Living Advisor
Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.
Assisted living vs. memory care: What services are offered?
Help with ADLs
Housekeeping and laundry services
Transportation to appointments
Specialized care for dementia and memory loss
24-hour care and supervision
Secured entrances and exits to prevent wandering
High staff-to-patient ratio
Unique layouts to reduce confusion
Who can benefit from assisted living?
Older adults who are active but may need nutritious meals and help with ADLs — such as bathing, dressing, or using the toilet — can benefit from assisted living. Seniors who wish for a convenient and maintenance-free lifestyle, with opportunities to stay engaged and connected with a community of like-minded peers, can also enjoy the lifestyle provided 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 provides for a pleasant, safe environment that is easy to navigate, which helps reduce confusion and agitation.
Memory-enhancing therapies and the specialized care available at these communities help seniors with memory loss maintain their cognitive skills for 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 within 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 community, along with all the therapies and amenities of memory care. So, a senior with early-stage dementia may be able to move to an assisted living residence first and then transition to the memory care level later if needed. This option may ease the move to memory care and enable seniors to maintain friendships and staff relationships from their previous assisted living environment.
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 these questions to determine the best fit for your aging relative:
Does my loved one with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia wander frequently?
Do they show combative behavior such as yelling or hitting?
Does my relative need a lot of direction throughout the day?
Does my family member need a lot of help with mobility? Do they walk independently, or do they require a walker or wheelchair they can’t use on their own?
Do they get lost in familiar places?
Does my loved one forget to lock or shut doors?
Do they leave on stoves or create other fire hazards?
Has their judgment become impaired to the point where they’re inappropriate in their dress, speech, or behavior?
Has my loved one become withdrawn?
Do they continuously misplace objects or have to retrace their steps?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions and are 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 one of A Place for Mom’s 400 local experts. They’re senior living professionals who will listen to your family’s needs and concerns to help you find the right senior care choice for your loved one.