With more than 75 million people projected to be living with dementia globally by 2030, the need for memory-care-specific senior living communities is sure to rise. These memory care communities offer a secured yet comfortable environment, providing freedom for residents to remain as independent as possible — and offering peace of mind for their families.
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Secured memory care units are specially designed spaces or communities for seniors with any type of dementia to live in safely. They are sometimes part of a larger senior living campus, hospital, or nursing facility. These spaces are necessary for safety, as people with dementia have a tendency to wander, may have trouble finding their rooms without visual aid, and may become agitated if they feel lost in an unfamiliar environment.
Innovative technologies, human-centered design, and clever architectural features, along with specially trained staff, make secured memory care units ideal for catering to the needs of people with memory-related issues. Protocols are also set to minimize hazardous situations and wandering as much as possible.
One of the biggest benefits of secure memory care is the additional safety this type of care offers those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. A secured atmosphere also gives peace of mind to family members. Knowing that a loved one is in an environment tailored to their unique needs can make a huge difference. The research-based design in secured memory care units plays a significant role in residents’ comfort and safety.
“Giving people a safe place to move about is key,” says Julie L. Masters, a professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha who holds a doctorate in gerontology and counseling. “The tendency to want to move is present — so allowing the person space to do so can be of benefit, should there be a need to pace or move around.”
Empowering residents to move freely within a safe environment helps reduce their anxiety and encourages them to live as independently as possible. This freedom of movement can give residents a feeling of self-confidence and pride in their ability to be themselves.
“Everything that is open and accessible to a resident should be safe,” says Juliet Holt Klinger, senior director of dementia care at Brookdale Senior Living. “What we’re providing is sheltered freedom.”
The reason unsecured environments remain dangerous for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is because of the risk of wandering. Three in five people with dementia are prone to wandering, according to recent research from the National Institutes of Health. Wandering — a potentially dangerous behavior that may occur when someone with dementia feels discomfort, agitation, or the need to be somewhere — can result in dangerous situations beyond becoming lost, like:
“The person’s sense of navigation and visual guidance is impaired with brain changes,” Masters says. “A person may be more likely to get lost and disoriented.”
It’s also common for a simple need, such as wanting food or looking for a restroom, to influence wandering, Masters explains. Wandering may also be triggered when a person with dementia believes they have to fulfill past habits or schedules, including going to work or shopping at a store.
Without a secured environment, an individual with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia could easily slip out of a community, hospital, or a private home and into a dangerous situation in the outside world.
While wandering cannot be prevented in most cases, communities can respond to this behavior using a variety of methods. Locked memory care units provide a place for seniors with any type of dementia to live safely, with increasing support as their diseases progress.
Secure memory care communities provide a safe yet respectful environment by utilizing modern techniques:
While memory care communities in the past sought to prevent wandering, many of today’s communities feature designs that embrace the behavior, as noted by Cynthia Warner, a California-certified interior designer and co-founder of Warner Design Associates.
Such wandering-friendly designs include the following elements:
Clever design elements remain some of the most effective ways to address safety and comfort, explains Erin Yelland, associate professor and interim director at the Kansas State University Center on Aging, who also holds a doctorate in family sciences.
“If you paint a door and its handle the same color as the wall, a person with dementia may be less likely to visually realize that it’s, in fact, a door,” Yelland says.
Understanding the particular psychology of dementia is critical to designing these spaces, as there are benefits to perceptive empathy.
For example, a flush black mat on the ground can be perceived by a person with dementia as a black hole, which they will try to avoid at all costs. So black low-profile doormats are sometimes used in dementia care units to keep residents from wandering into spaces they should avoid, Yelland explains.
Technology plays a key role in many of the safety features in secured memory care units. Yelland suggests the following technology features be included throughout memory care spaces:
Typically, secure memory care units have specially trained staff members with expertise in caring for and interacting with people experiencing dementia or cognitive decline. These specialized caregivers use behavioral, person-centered, empathic techniques to assist individuals with memory loss in their day-to-day lives.
Memory care communities often train staff members to look out for potentially dangerous situations or hazardous items that may be accessible to the resident. Memory care staff are also trained to redirect a resident that is actively exit-seeking or trying to move outside the secured memory care unit. This staff training helps ensure that, even when design features fail to keep a resident safe, a caregiver is there to look out for them.
It should also be reassuring for families to know that staff in secured memory care units routinely practice drills to prepare for the rare event of a resident eloping, or wandering away from the secured community. Regular drills help staff remain prepared for an emergency situation.
While today’s secured memory care units largely focus on physical designs, the future presents innovative options for “sheltered freedom” through a canvass of technological tracking and monitoring systems.
“At this point, the best available safe environment for us is the secured door, but I think the future is coming, right?” says Holt Klinger. “With monitoring, technology, and AI . . . those environments will change.”
With these new technologies, secured memory care communities can potentially shift from a generalized approach to a more person-centered, resident-by-resident basis. For example, the rise of facial recognition technology and wearable GPS tracking devices in fabrics could make it easier for communities to provide individualized safety options, says Max Winters, co-host of the Shaping Dementia Environments podcast and senior associate at Perkins Eastman, a design firm with extensive senior living experience.
Locked memory care units currently approach safety through a narrow philosophy of “what is dangerous for one resident is dangerous for all residents,” Winters explains.
With such personalized memory care safety technologies in the future, your loved one could experience more tailored freedom and an increased preservation of their independence. This developing technology can make barriers permeable, Winters notes.
Touring a secured memory care unit or memory care community can be essential to finding the ideal place for your loved one with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia.
“One person with dementia is one person with dementia,” Winters says. “Every one of those people needs different things.”
If you choose to tour in-person or virtually, you should consider asking specific safety and design questions based upon your loved one’s individual situation and stage of dementia. You can even use these Community Touring Notes made by A Place for Mom to help record the building’s features and your impressions of a memory care community during a tour. Since wandering is a serious safety concern for seniors with dementia, you’ll want to thoroughly evaluate the specific features of the secured memory care unit where your loved one will reside.
“If you see a unique design element or something curious, ask about it,” Yelland recommends. “If they have a well-informed answer, they likely have well-informed staff!”
Although it can be challenging to determine if a memory care community is the right choice, A Place for Mom’s free, local Senior Living Advisors can help connect you with communities near you to find an ideal fit.
Holt Klinger, J. (2022, March 11). Personal communication. [Personal interview].
Masters, J. L. (2022, March 7). Personal communication. [Personal interview].
Neubauer, N. A., Azad-Khaneghah, P., Miguel-Cruz, A., & Liu, L. (2018, August 31). What do we know about strategies to manage dementia-related wandering? A scope review. Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring.
Warner, C. (2018, August 26).“Must haves” for memory care interior design.
Winters, M. (2022, March 8). Personal communication. [Personal interview].
Yelland, E. (2022, March 3). Personal communication. [Personal interview].
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