Watching an older adult suffering from the progressive effects of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia can be distressing for family members who worry about their loved one’s safety, daily care needs and overall well-being as symptoms progress. Memory care facilities can provide them with much-needed relief. What’s more, they can help people with dementia maintain their quality of life and make the most of each day.
Here’s what you need to know about memory care.
What Is Memory Care?
Memory care is a unique subset of assisted living and nursing home care. These facilities have smaller staff-to-patient ratios and are designed to meet the specific social, medical and safety needs of people who have dementia or some form of cognitive impairment.
Effective memory care takes a holistic look at the needs of people with dementia.
“Oftentimes, people think of treating the disease, and that’s the wrong framing—we focus on providing care for the patient who has the disease,” says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, M.D., medical director of the Deanna and Sidney Wolk Center for Memory Health, senior scientist at the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife, and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
“It’s hard to take care of someone with cognitive problems,” he says. “If you get to the point where the caregiver is having trouble coping, there’s a significantly increased risk of morbidity and mortality for the patient. So we know that good memory care has to include care for the family, too.”
Memory Care Services
The overall goal of memory care is to maintain the safety, dignity and independence of the people it serves. Good memory care, with empathetic and specially trained staff, is targeted to the specific needs of its residents.
The amount and type of care needed depends on each person and the stage of their dementia. In early stages of the disease, some people can still live somewhat independently in a memory care-assisted living hybrid situation. In the middle stages of the disease, round-the-clock supervision becomes necessary. And in the final stages, that care may become more intensive. To meet these needs, in-home care, adult day centers and residential memory care programs are available.
There’s no cookie-cutter approach to memory care, but programs that promote engagement and brain health are most effective. Such elements include physical activity, cognitive training, sleep hygiene and an appropriate diet. And because about 60% of people with dementia are prone to wandering, memory care facilities have thoughtful security. Alarmed doors and enclosed outdoor spaces help keep residents safe.
Benefits of Memory Care
Specialized care can help people with dementia live fuller lives.
“Some people think that memory care is like a parking lot, a dead-end street that you want to stay away from as long as possible,” says Pascual-Leone. “But that’s simply not true. It’s a way to maintain function for the longest possible time.”
“On the other end, some people think it’s like rehab—you go there to get better,” he adds. “But it’s about learning and adapting to living with a disease you’re never going to get rid of. You can still live with joy, enjoyment and dignity. Memory care helps you relate to those you love in the best possible way. It’s not a cure or a miracle, but it maintains you and helps you function as long as possible.”
Memory Care Costs
Specialized care is quite expensive. Research conducted by insurance company Genworth found monthly care costs in the U.S. in 2020 averaged:
- $1,603 for enrollment in adult day healthcare
- $4,300 for a room in an assisted living facility
- $7,745 for a semi-private room in a nursing home
- $8,821 for a private room in a nursing home
These costs don’t include memory care. Memory care services can add another $1,000 to $4,000 a month to any of these prices. Fortunately, there are ways to help pay for this care.
Is Memory Care Covered by Insurance?
Sometimes. While health insurance doesn’t typically pay for memory care, long-term care insurance can cover nursing home living and palliative care—the exact benefits depend on your specific policy. There are other programs that can help, too. Consider:
- Social Security Disability Income (SSDI)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Veterans’ Affairs (VA) benefits
- State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIPs)
- Disability insurance
- A group employee plan or retiree medical coverage
Planning for the financial aspects of memory care can be easier with the help of a professional. A financial planner or estate planning attorney may be able to assist your family.
How to Know if Memory Care Is Right for Your Loved One
Each person is different, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule about when it’s time for memory care. But here are a few factors to consider:
- Health. Does your loved one need special care or require help with medications?
- Safety. Does your loved one wander off or need constant supervision?
- Care. Is your loved one able to bathe, dress and feed themselves?
- Engagement. Does your loved one take part in meaningful activities every day?
- Caregiving. Is the main caregiver of your loved one struggling physically or emotionally?
The best time to think about memory care is before you need it.
“You don’t want your loved one to leave the faucet running and flood the bathroom or leave the kettle on the stove and burn down the house,” says Pascual-Leone. “We always think it won’t happen, but it might. Memory care has to anticipate problems that hopefully won’t ever come.”
Tips for Choosing a Memory Care Facility
When looking for a memory care facility, make several visits and ask questions. You want to get a feel for the atmosphere and gauge cleanliness. Also, find out how many residents live in the facility and how many specially trained staff members work there. Ask:
- What’s included in the fee?
- What activities are available for residents?
- Is transportation to medical appointments available?
- Is there an outdoor area for residents?
- Do residents have access to services like dentistry, audiology and foot care?
One simple factor can often be overlooked: What features in a facility would the potential resident actually like?
“Ideally, it should be the patient herself or himself looking for the memory care unit with the help of their children,” says Pascual-Leone. “You want to be able to say what you would like at a time when you’re still able to convey it. We are all different and like different things.”
Common issues, such as safety and privacy, are important as well. But memory care living is just that: living. People tend to thrive when they are happy and comfortable. So finding a memory care facility that’s a good fit for the individual is vital.
“Until we get a cure, we want to minimize disability in the face of the illness,” says Pascual-Leone. “That’s what memory care ought to do.”