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Memory Care vs. Nursing Homes: What’s the Difference?

By Merritt WhitleyMarch 29, 2022
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If your elderly parent with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia requires full-time care, you may be considering a memory care facility or nursing home. Or, you may be wondering: Is a memory care facility a nursing home?

While both of these long-term care options can support seniors with memory loss, knowing the difference between memory care and nursing homes is important. Both memory care and nursing homes provide 24-hour care, supervision, and meals. Staff members also help with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, dressing, and medication management.

However, memory care — sometimes called dementia care — is specialized just for people with memory loss. This type of care focuses on enhancing the quality of life for people with dementia in a secure environment to minimize confusion and the dangers of wandering. 

Nursing homes provide care and medical assistance for seniors who are debilitated. Seniors in nursing homes don’t require hospital care but can’t care for themselves or live independently. They may be bedridden, need a wheelchair, or require daily nursing care. 

In this article:

Memory care: What to expect

Memory care communities provide 24-hour, specialized care for people with memory loss. Caregivers at memory care facilities regularly receive dementia care training to help prevent and minimize difficult dementia behaviors.

Memory care communities rely on experienced, skilled staff to help prevent and minimize dementia symptoms like the following:

  • Sundown syndrome
  • Memory loss or confusion
  • Wandering
  • Aggressive or combative behavior
  • Hallucinations

Memory-enhancing activities, therapies, and programs at memory care facilities also help improve quality of life for seniors with memory loss. These unique services may include an array of options:

The design of a memory care facility versus a nursing home also differs. Safety is a key priority at memory care facilities, and they’re often equipped with built-in safety features. Such features can include locked and alarmed exit doors to prevent injuries potentially caused by wandering. Many memory care facilities also are specially designed to reduce confusion and create a familiar, homelike environment for seniors with memory loss.

The following layout and design features are common at memory care facilities:

  • Color-coded walls
  • Clearly defined shared spaces
  • Enclosed gardens or courtyards
  • Memory boxes outside residents’ doors with personalized memorabilia
  • Keypad entrances for family or staff

Nursing homes: What to expect

Nursing home residents often have serious health issues or chronic conditions that require around-the-clock care.

Two types of care options are available at nursing homes:

  • Short-term care. Skilled nursing care and rehabilitation services are available to people recovering from illness, surgery, or an acute injury. You can also find these services at skilled nursing facilities, which specifically accommodate shorter stays.
  • Long-term care. Long-term care is available to people with cognitive disorders, terminal illnesses, or chronic conditions.

In addition to help with activities of daily living, nursing home services may include medication management, wound care, IV therapies, and respiratory therapy. Services can also incorporate rehabilitative therapies, like speech, occupational, and physical therapy.

Medicare’s nursing home comparison tool can help you find detailed information about every Medicare- and Medicaid-certified nursing home in the U.S.

Nursing home care requires a physician’s prescription and physical exam before a resident can move in. Seniors may qualify for nursing home care in the following situations:

  • They need rehabilitative services.
  • They require continuous supervision.
  • They need help with daily activities, such as eating, bathing, and dressing.
  • They need assistance managing health conditions and medications.

Nursing home qualification requirements differ from one state to the next. It’s important to check with your local Medicaid or county government agency to learn about your state’s specific nursing home qualification requirements.

Nursing home vs. memory care: What services are offered?

ServicesMemory CareNursing Homes
Meal servicesxx
Housekeeping and laundry servicesxx
Social activitiesxx
Medication managementxx
Help with daily activities (ADLs)xx
Specialized care for patients with memory lossxx
24-hour care and supervisionxx
Secured entrances and exits to prevent wanderingxx
Rehabilitative therapies as neededx
Memory-enhancing therapiesx
Unique facility layout and design to reduce confusionx
Transportation to appointmentsx

Combining memory care with skilled nursing

If your loved one has significant health issues besides dementia, you may be wondering, “Is memory care considered skilled nursing?”

A key difference between memory care and skilled nursing is the level of care. Skilled nursing is the highest level of care that patients can receive outside of a hospital. It involves registered nurses or other trained, licensed professionals under the supervision of a doctor. Memory care communities don’t provide skilled nursing services like nursing homes often do.

However, some nursing homes offer care specifically for people with dementia.

So, what is memory care in a nursing home? Sometimes, you’ll find a nursing home memory care unit located in a separate wing or dedicated space of a facility, according to the National Institute on Aging. In these units, staff members typically have specialized training to meet the unique needs of people with dementia. A nursing home memory care unit provides a higher level of medical care than you’ll find in a memory care community.

Cost of memory care compared to nursing homes

Many factors affect the cost of memory care communities and nursing homes, including location, the type of services provided, and whether a space is shared.

  • Memory care cost. The national median monthly cost of memory care is $5,430. However, cost may vary depending on the community and location. For example, the median cost in Georgia is $3,995 compared to $7,710 in New Jersey, while other regions may be much lower or higher.
  • Nursing home care cost. The cost of nursing home care depends on your state and whether the facility is private or owned by the state. The median monthly cost of a semi-private nursing home room in the U.S. is $7,908, according to the 2021 Genworth Cost of Care Survey. The median cost of a private nursing home room in the U.S. is $9,034 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.

Memory care or nursing home: How do I decide?

Memory care is for people with Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, or other types of memory loss. People with advanced memory loss who require 24-hour supervision, or people with dementia symptoms that are difficult to manage, often benefit from the knowledgeable and compassionate approach used at memory care facilities. The customized layouts, safety features, and memory-focused therapies at these facilities help improve quality of life for seniors with memory loss.

However, seniors with serious medical needs who require 24-hour supervision may benefit from nursing homes that offer skilled nursing care and rehabilitative therapies.

If you’re unsure about what type of care will best fit your loved one, talk with your family, your elderly loved one, and their doctor or case manager to better understand their care needs. You can learn about memory care versus long-term care options of varying types in the following articles:

A Place for Mom is ready to assist and offers a free consultation service that’s helped hundreds of thousands of families find senior living for their aging family members. Contact a local Senior Living Advisor to discuss your loved one’s needs and the available care options in your area.


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

Genworth. (2022, February 7).Cost of care survey.

National Institute on Aging. (2017, May 18). Finding long-term care for a person with Alzheimer’s.

The information contained in this article 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.

Merritt Whitley

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