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

10 minute readLast updated April 1, 2022
Written by Chacour Koop

As dementia symptoms progress, independence becomes more and more difficult to preserve for seniors with Alzheimer’s or other types of cognitive impairment. Memory care communities offer a wide range of specialized services from staff trained in dementia care — all with the goal of maximizing a senior’s independence while also ensuring safety.

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Independent living, however, is a much different type of senior living option, where senior residents don’t require help with daily tasks and can maintain the active lifestyle they’ve always enjoyed.

It’s essential for caregivers to learn the distinctions between these two settings as they consider senior living options for a loved one with dementia. Both memory care and independent living can provide a comfortable and engaging environment, but they vary significantly when it comes to benefits, services, and costs.

What is memory care?

Memory care is a type of senior living for older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Sometimes, it’s called Alzheimer’s care or dementia care. Memory care communities provide housing and 24-hour care with a focus on improving quality of life, reducing confusion, and preventing elopement, the term for when a mentally impaired individual wanders away form their familiar surroundings.

Who benefits from memory care?

A senior with dementia and their family caregivers can benefit from memory care communities.

As dementia progresses into later stages, it can become increasingly difficult for loved ones to manage challenging behaviors at home. Seniors with dementia can experience confusion, sundown syndrome, aggression, and wandering. This may lead to caregiver burnout.

Memory care communities provide a safe and calming setting to reduce stress on families and their loved ones with dementia. Benefits of memory care communities typically include:

  • A secure setting. As dementia progresses, seniors encounter an increasing number of safety risks in their home. Memory care communities provide measures to help ensure senior residents don’t injure themselves or get lost.
  • Trained staff. Responding to the unique needs of seniors with dementia takes specialized training, which caregivers undergo. 
  • Higher staff-to-resident ratio. You can generally expect staff to provide more individualized attention and develop detailed memory care nursing plans.
  • Uniquely designed facilities. Some memory care communities include human-centered design, which takes into account the way a resident thinks, behaves, and feels to help them feel at home.
  • Coordinated care. Memory care staff can collaborate with other medical care providers to meet the physical and mental health needs of residents.

Memory care services

Memory care communities offer services comparable to assisted living. This can include help with activities of daily living such as bathing, grooming, and dressing, as well as dining, medication management, housekeeping, laundry, and transportation services.

However, what can set the services in a memory care community apart from other senior living options is person-centered dementia care, memory-enhancing activities, and supportive therapies. Memory care therapies may include:

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  • Music therapyA person’s music memory can remain even as they’re experiencing cognitive decline. Integrating familiar music into a resident’s daily life can lower stress, enhance memory, and reduce agitation.
  • Pet therapy. Some memory care facilities may also have a resident pet, typically a dog or cat, for companionship.
  • Art therapy. Creative activities like painting, illustration, or ceramics can slow cognitive decline and improve quality of life.
  • Reminiscence therapyThe use of sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound can help seniors with dementia recall people, events, or places.
  • Aromatherapy. Using scent to evoke memories can reduce agitation in older adults with memory loss.

Cost of memory care

The national median monthly cost of memory care was $5,430 in 2021, according to proprietary APFM data. However, median costs varied widely depending on location. For instance, the median monthly cost of memory care in Georgia was $3,995 compared to $5,900 in Illinois and $7,695 in Maine.

What is independent living?

Independent living is a type of senior living community for active older adults, and it can be a standalone facility or part of a community with other levels of care.

Independent living communities offer a more carefree lifestyle by removing the burdens of homeownership and other daily tasks. Through various activities, these communities often promote camaraderie among residents who are at a similar stage in life.

Who can benefit from independent living?

Older adults who are generally active and healthy can benefit from choosing an independent living community. While the communities don’t provide daily care like assisted living or memory care, independent living usually offers services and amenities designed to make the lives of residents easier as they age.

With fewer chores and responsibilities, residents can spend more time on favorite hobbies, discover new interests, and connect with friends. Importantly, this sense of belonging can help prevent social isolation in seniors, thereby improving mental and physical health.

Lastly, these communities benefit seniors by providing a safer environment while still enabling them to remain independent. Older adults are at increased risk of falls, but senior-friendly living spaces can help prevent this potentially life-changing hazard.

Independent living services

Convenience and comfort are key components of independent living communities. As a result, these communities typically provide services designed to create a hassle-free environment. Here are a few examples of services you might find:

  • Dining services. Even older adults who enjoy cooking may not want to spend time preparing meals every day. Independent living communities often offer three meals daily. Plus, private living spaces usually include full or partial kitchens for times residents feel like fixing a favorite recipe.
  • Home maintenance. Staff often handle home repairs, lawn care, and even light housekeeping. This prevents residents from needing to do potentially dangerous chores, leaving more time for activities they enjoy.
  • Social activities. Creating connections among residents is important in an independent living community. Activities may include movie nights, group fitness classes, book clubs, or off-site excursions.
  • Safety features. Staff at independent living communities are typically available 24 hours a day in case of emergencies. Plus, living spaces with emergency alert systems or personal emergency alert devices may be available.
  • Transportation. Independent living residents may choose to keep driving, but their communities often offer scheduled transportation services for outings, shopping, or medical appointments.

Cost of independent living

The national median monthly cost of independent living was $2,552, according to A Place for Mom’s 2018 Annual Senior Living Cost Index. However, costs can vary widely depending on location. For example, the median monthly cost was $2,152 in Tampa, Florida, compared to $3,517 in San Francisco, California.

Is independent living with memory care available?

Independent living and memory care differ significantly. Therefore, while these senior care types may be available in the same senior living community, they’re often located in separate areas or dedicated units.

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Someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia may be able to function somewhat independently. However, it’s important to remember that their care needs can change as dementia progresses.

A memory care community may be an appropriate option for your loved one if:

  • Managing behaviors and symptoms of dementia are overwhelming
  • Daily hygiene needs are unmet
  • Sleep problems can’t be improved
  • Managing medications becomes too difficult
  • Wandering is beginning to become a concern
  • Falls and accidents in the home have become more likely
  • Proper nutrition is difficult to attain
  • You’re burnt out as a caregiver

Finding senior living for someone with dementia

As you can see, there’s a notable difference between independent living and memory care. A senior with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia typically requires ongoing monitoring and care throughout the day, which isn’t offered by an independent living community. The two settings also differ in costs, services, and activities.

When you’re searching for the most appropriate senior living environment for a loved one, it’s important to learn about all of your options, including assisted living, in-home care, and nursing care.

  • Assisted livingThese communities provide a supportive environment similar to memory care. However, staff may not be trained in dementia care, and these facilities may not include specialized safety features and therapies.
  • In-home care for dementiaAging in place may be the preference of some seniors with dementia and their families, but make sure in-home care providers offer memory care-trained staff. And, note: In-home care may not offer many of the same services and amenities as a memory care community.
  • Nursing homes. This senior living option provides the highest level of medical care outside of a hospital. Some include dedicated wings for seniors with dementia. Assess the level of care needed by a loved one to determine whether these are appropriate options.

Finding senior living can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are resources to help guide you. A Place for Mom offers a free consultation service that’s helped thousands of families find senior care for their loved ones. Contact a Senior Living Advisor to talk about the needs of your family member and available options near you.


A Place for Mom. (2022). A Place for Mom Proprietary Senior Living Price Index.

A Place for Mom. (2018). A Place for Mom 2018 Annual Senior Living Cost Index.

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal, or financial advice or to create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.


Meet the Author
Chacour Koop

Chacour Koop is a former copywriter at A Place for Mom, where he published articles focused on Medicare, Medicaid, dementia, and wellness with a hope that other families can use the information to improve their lives. As a former family caregiver, Chacour Koop strives to bring practical knowledge about senior care to readers who are navigating this complex topic. Before writing about senior living, he was a journalist with bylines in The Associated Press, Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, and dozens of other publications. He earned a degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.

Edited by

Danny Szlauderbach

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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