Memory care offers social opportunities, cognitive engagement, and an enhanced quality of life for seniors with memory loss. People with dementia receiving care from highly trained staff members report fewer symptoms and medical visits than those not receiving such care, according to a 2019 study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. In addition, reliable care lowers stress and burnout for family members, the researchers note.
However, to benefit from memory care, seniors and family members must have a conversation about making the transition. “Years ago, families would have a heavy-handed approach, but it’s different now that we’ve learned more about the experience of people living with memory loss,” says David Troxel, former president and CEO of the California Central Coast Alzheimer’s Association. “I encourage adult children to form a partnership with their parent. Be authentic and genuinely express your concerns.”
Follow these steps to improve your chances for a good conversation.
Before approaching your parent or aging relative about moving to a memory care facility, contact family members who may be involved in the decision to ensure a united and supportive front. Several key strategies can simplify this process, particularly if adult siblings or other relatives are divided on whether memory care is needed.
Active listening is a communication tactic grounded in empathy. While it’s easy to be formulating your own response while others are talking — particularly in emotional situations — active listening counters this and encourages conversation participants to stay in the present. According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, features of active listening include:
In situations where families struggle to agree, someone with experience in senior living or senior health can often help lead to a consensus, says Adair Nelson, a Senior Living Advisor with A Place for Mom. In fact, Nelson has served as a mediator in several family discussions throughout her career. Similarly, families might reach out to their parent’s primary care physician, a geriatric care manager, or a neurologist for a professional opinion.
The family needs to have consistent messaging. Keep it conversational. I would focus on socialization, safety, and quality of life issues.David Troxel, former president and CEO of the California Central Coast Alzheimer’s Association
If your parent has yet to get a neuropsychological exam or it’s been some time since they’ve had one, now’s the time, says Troxel. This helps determine whether or not the family member is displaying symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, as well as how far the disease has progressed. Additionally, doctors will ask caregivers about any changes they’ve observed, as well as use cognitive exam tools like the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) or Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA). In many cases, a thorough doctor’s visit can solidify a decision to move a parent to memory care.
Often, tensions arise between an adult sibling who cares for the parent regularly and other adult siblings. While Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms may not be easy to observe from one interaction, a senior’s primary caregiver has a more comprehensive view. Troxel, who served as a primary caregiver for his mother for 10 years, recommends caregivers keep a journal and share regular updates over email. This can make other relatives aware of what’s going on with your parent’s condition, as well as help them understand why memory care may be needed.
“I always suggest families tour a few facilities before mentioning it to the parent,” says Nelson. This way, they can reference specific memory care activities and amenities they think their parent or elderly loved one will appreciate. A Place for Mom Senior Living Advisors can schedule in-person and virtual tours with communities throughout the United States.
There’s another key advantage to touring a facility ahead of time: In the event of a sudden fall, injury, or dangerous wandering situation, families can more quickly choose and move their loved one to memory care.
Parents will often say, ‘You’re not shipping me off to a nursing home.’ People have these ideas in their heads that senior living is still like it was 20 to 30 years ago, but it’s changed.Adair Nelson, Senior Living Advisor at A Place for Mom
To evaluate different communities, families can use this memory care checklist, which includes questions about staff training, amenities, security, and other important memory care features.
After visiting a memory care facility virtually or in-person, the next step depends on what stage of dementia your parent or loved one is experiencing. For seniors with advanced dementia symptoms, having a caregiver choose their community can minimize confusion, says Nelson.
While some older adults may value the opinions of a big group, involving the whole family can make others feel defensive and overwhelmed. As with many components of memory care, the right approach varies.
Once you’ve decided who will participate in the conversation, lay the groundwork to make it successful.
In his many conversations with families moving a parent to memory care, Troxel noticed that each person would use different verbiage when talking to their loved one. Some would position memory care as a temporary solution, while others would say their parent is moving into their lifelong home. Similarly, some family members would empathize with the difficulties of adjusting to a new setting, whereas others would talk about the positive aspects of memory care.
An inconsistent tone can further confuse and aggravate someone dealing with memory loss, says Troxel. “The family needs to have consistent messaging. Keep it conversational. I would focus on socialization, safety, and quality of life issues.”
Following this advice, here are some methods for developing an internal script that each family member can reference.
For Megan Newlin, a teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, who worked with Nelson to find memory care for her mother, bringing up safety and staff friendliness made the conversation go smoother. After her mom suffered a series of seizures that affected her memory and mobility, Newlin highlighted how a memory care facility would better meet her needs.
“The way I phrased it was, ‘You’re going to stay somewhere where they’re able to take care of you,’” says Newlin. “She was really happy when I told her about the staff and their compassion.”
Nelson agrees that focusing on these relationships can keep the conversation positive and make memory care a more welcome transition. Similarly, talking about memory care therapies and activities may have the same effect.
I needed my mom to be my mom again, and I needed to be her daughter again, but I was her caregiver. Now that I have someone else who’s taking care of her, I’m able to have that relationship again.Megan Newlin, a teacher who found memory care for her mother via A Place for Mom
“Parents will often say, ‘You’re not shipping me off to a nursing home.’ People have these ideas in their heads that senior living is still like it was 20 to 30 years ago, but it’s changed,” Nelson explains. “Educate your parent on the types of communities, as well as the programming and structure that they have.”
Nelson recommends mentioning the following memory care features:
Newlin avoids panic by focusing on the short-term with her mother. “We’ve never told my mom that she’s going to be in memory care for the rest of her life,” she says. “We’ve said, ‘This is where you’re going to go now. They can help you with the things that you need help with.’ As time passes, she brings up coming home a whole lot less.”
“As a family member, whenever possible, try not to make yourself the bad guy,” says Troxel. “Say something like, ‘I know you want to live at home, but the doctor insists.’”
In other words, shifting personal responsibility for the decision can help preserve your relationship with your loved one.
So, you’ve presented the benefits of memory care, expressed concern for your parent’s safety, and consulted a doctor or other expert — and your parent still seems hesitant or downright hostile toward the idea of moving to memory care. Unfortunately, this is a common reaction. So common, in fact, that Troxel recommends families start the discussion early and expect a “no” as the parent’s initial response.
Here’s how to deescalate the situation and increase your loved one’s receptiveness.
In emergency situations where a senior’s safety is at risk, families can stand firm in their decision to move a parent to memory care, leaning on legal tools like power of attorney or guardianship when necessary. These legal designations allow a trusted figure, like an adult child, to make decisions on a senior’s behalf when memory or judgment is impaired.
Broaching the topic of memory care with your parent and other family members can bring up complex emotions. Just as it’s important to take care of your loved one, it’s also crucial to prioritize and check in with yourself. Newlin recommends the following strategies, all of which helped her through her mother’s move:
“I needed my mom to be my mom again, and I needed to be her daughter again, but I was her caregiver,” says Newlin. “Now that I have someone else who’s taking care of her, I’m able to have that relationship again. You have to be fair to yourself. Step outside of the situation and ask, ‘What’s the best thing for this person and how can I keep them safe?’ I know my mom is safe now.”
Greater Good Science Center. “Active Listening.”
Heintz et al. “Emerging Collaborative Care Models for Dementia Care in the Primary Care Setting: A Narrative Review.”
Kara Lewis is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She’s worked in writing, editing, and creative strategy for several years, most recently at Andrews McMeel Universal, Hallmark, and Gannett Media. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Alma, and The Kansas City Star, among other outlets. She has won awards for digitally conscious journalism, investigative reporting, magazine writing, and poetry.