Assisted Living vs. Memory Care Facilities: What’s the difference?

Elderly woman putting together a puzzle with her children in a memory care facility
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By: Merritt Whitley, editor

About 70% of adults 65 and older will need long-term care at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Many will also need special cognitive treatment, or memory care, due to dementia. About 5.8 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. That number is projected to grow to nearly 14 million people by 2060.

There are many similarities between senior memory care and assisted living, the two fastest-growing forms of senior care. Both offer housing, meal services, medical monitoring, and help with daily activities such as dressing, mobility, and hygiene.But what are the differences? And what are the most important factors in choosing the best environment for your aging loved one?

What is assisted living?

Assisted living is a long-term care option that combines housing, support services, and some health care if needed. It’s designed for seniors who are active, but cannot live independently and may need help with everyday activities such as bathing, dressing, or eating.

Many assisted living communities provide services such as:

  • Medication management
  • Transportation
  • Help with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing, toileting, and grooming
  • Housekeeping or laundry services
  • Meal services
  • Social activities
  • Concierge

Assisted living communities typically plan regular activities or events to engage, connect, and entertain residents such as:

  • Book clubs
  • Bingo
  • Special events
  • Virtual bowling
  • Karaoke
  • Field trips

What is memory care?

Memory care is specialized care for seniors who have Alzheimer’s, another type of dementia, and other forms of memory loss. It offers many of the same benefits as assisted living, including supervised care, help with ADLs, meal services, and health care as needed.

Memory care differs from assisted living in a few ways:

  • Restrictive, 24-hour supervision to prevent wandering
  • More comprehensive and detailed staff training
  • Smaller staff-to-resident ratio
  • Physical layouts generally designed to better suit the needs of people with dementia

Safety features differ by community. For example, some have alarms on all outer doors as well as call units in each room. Others have doors with a system to delay exit.

Memory care is offered in a separate wing or building of an assisted living community or in a stand-alone memory care facility. While assisted living communities are regulated by individual states, federal memory care guidelines can apply as well.

Memory care therapies and programs for seniors

Memory care often includes structured activities or programs designed to nurture residents who have Alzheimer’s or dementia. For instance, Sunrise Senior Living offers “Reminiscence” neighborhoods. Resident suites are located near living and dining areas to simplify navigation and encourage socialization.

Memory care facilities also use specialized technology and trained staff to assist with different types of dementia-related therapy and activities:

  • Art therapy
  • Pet therapy
  • Light therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Aromatherapy
  • Sensory stimulation
  • Storytelling

These unique memory care therapies have been found to be beneficial to those with memory loss.

Design features for Alzheimer’s care

Certain design elements in memory care facilities can help ease anxiety and agitation common in those with dementia. Some of these special elements include:

  • Clearly defined shared spaces
  • Color-coded walls to help those with memory loss find their way easier
  • Outdoor gardens to prevent patients from feeling trapped
  • Memory boxes outside residents’ doors with personalized memorabilia to guide them and make them feel at home

Comparing cost and payment options

The costs of assisted living and memory care are both subject to similar variables: geographic location, size of room, whether a space is shared, and what services are needed. Beyond this, costs are figured a little differently for the two types of care.

  • Assisted living communities generally charge a base monthly rate, which covers room and board with two to three meals per day. The average cost for a one-bedroom assisted living apartment is $3,300 per month depending on your location. Some facilities cover housekeeping, laundry, and other services in their base rate, while others charge extra — so it’s important to get a cost breakdown for each facility you’re looking at.
  • Memory care communities or units offer specialized care and nursing services that regular assisted living does not. The cost tends to be a bit higher because of its specialized staff and treatments. On average, this type of care costs around $5,000 per month. However, cost varies based on the community — it can generally range anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 per month.

The location of the community will significantly affect the price. Be sure to use our Elder Care Cost Comparison tool and explore our Senior Living Cost Index to help you compare the cost of long-term care types in your area.

Combining memory care and assisted living

The majority of — but not all — assisted living communities offer memory care in what are called “specialized care units (SCUs).” These units usually provide 24-hour supervised care in a separate wing or floor of a residential facility.

Is memory care or assisted living better for my loved one?

Start by asking yourself these 15 questions to determine the best fit:

  1. Does my loved one seek exits or wander frequently?
  2. Does my loved one show combative behavior such as yelling or hitting?
  3. Does my loved one need a lot of direction throughout the day?
  4. Does my loved one take things that don’t belong to them?
  5. Does my loved one need 24-7 supervision?
  6. Is my loved one experiencing Sundown Syndrome?
  7. What is my loved one’s level of mobility? Do they walk independently, or do they require a walker or wheelchair?
  8. Is my loved one getting lost in familiar territory?
  9. Does my loved one know their phone number and address?
  10. Does my loved one forget to lock or shut doors?
  11. Do they leave on stoves or other fire hazards?
  12. Does my loved one substitute words that make no sense or forget everyday words, such as “fork” or “toothbrush”?
  13. Does your loved one’s judgment become impaired to the point where they’re inappropriate in their dress, speech, or behavior?
  14. Does your loved one become withdrawn?
  15. Do they continuously misplace objects or have to retrace their steps?

If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, or if you feel that your loved one may be a flight risk, then memory care is probably the better option.

Assisted living is a good option if memory loss is not an immediate concern. It’s ideal for seniors who are relatively independent and social but require extra care. If cognitive issues are an issue, however, an assisted living facility with 24-hour supervision via a secured memory care unit or a separate memory care community are options to consider.

Our Senior Living Advisors, can discuss in-depth the differences between memory care and assisted living and share information about communities in your area. When visiting communities in person or via virtual tours, don’t forget to check out these guides first:

Finding the Right Assisted Living Community: 50 Essential Questions to Ask
Finding the Right Memory Care Community: 50 Essential Questions to Ask