How Memory Care for Alzheimer’s or Dementia Differs from Assisted Living

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Assisted Living vs Memory Care for Alzheimer’s or Dementia Patients
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Regardless of whether it’s expected or not, a dementia diagnosis often initiates a big change, particularly for family members and caregivers. If your loved one’s senior living plans originally included moving to an assisted living community, this diagnosis may sway you towards considering a memory care community instead.

Although assisted living is often a great choice for aging adults who need some help day-to-day, memory care is more suited for those with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. This is because they provide a more structured environment as well as specially trained staff and engaging activities tailored specifically to meet the needs of those living with the condition. 

More About Dementia

When your loved one receives a diagnosis of dementia, you’re faced with a lot of questions and considerations. Know that you are not alone, and neither is your loved one. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million adults are currently living with the disease. And that figure doesn’t include individuals living with other types of dementia, or their affected family members.

All types of dementia cause some challenges for the person living with the condition as well as their loved ones. One challenge to be aware of with dementia is its unpredictability. Dementia is a progressive condition, so day-to-day capabilities will constantly shift, which can make it difficult for family members to help out. Once a loved one thinks they’ve reached a “new normal,” things shift again. 

This inevitability means that future planning is especially crucial for maintaining their well-being and safety. You want to have steps in place for keeping your loved one safe regardless of their condition’s status or progress.

Specialized memory care communities can provide comforting reassurance for family members, along with personalized assistance that keeps parents or loved ones healthy and independent. It’s never too early—or too late—to begin researching memory care options in your area. In fact, an early transition to memory care can decrease the risk of transfer trauma and make the overall experience much more therapeutic for your loved one. A thoughtful approach can help ensure a successful transition to memory care.


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Benefits of Memory Care Communities

If you’re like most people who are new to the senior living space, you might assume that all communities offer dementia assistance. Although seniors with dementia are often represented in assisted living, it’s important to make sure the community you choose provides skilled memory care, if that’s what your loved one requires.

Assisted living communities offer various levels of care, from those who need very little assistance day-to-day to those who require regular help with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as grooming or dressing. Their programming is typically more general than the tailored care plans and events offered at most memory care communities.

On the other hand, memory care communities are specially designed to provide the best environment, care, and interactions for those living with dementia. Although assisted living is an excellent solution for residents who need some assistance with daily tasks, memory care increases the quality of care for these residents through:

  • An environment engineered for their success
  • Specially trained staff members
  • Daily activities designed to provide a rhythm to the day

These three essential elements of community living are what make memory care an excellent option for those with dementia. Here’s why:

Structured Environment

Memory care communities are equipped to ensure resident safety while still giving easy access to the outdoors and community spaces. Because wandering—or walking without a purpose or destination—is a common side effect of dementia, memory care communities have open spaces where residents can stroll, but they also have secured entrances and exits, ensuring residents are adequately supervised. Those in assisted living communities are often allowed a bit more independence when it comes to solo travel.

Beyond safety, the most important aspect of memory care communities is that they’re designed to feel just like home. It’s common to see residents interacting in the shared living spaces, including the activity room or family-style dining room. Hallways are well-lit to decrease the risk of falling, but stray away from clinical, hospital-type lighting to make sure the surroundings feel comfortable. And like home, residents also enjoy easy access to outdoor areas like patios and courtyards, but safely.

Specially Trained Staff Members

Living in a community that offers memory care also provides access to specialized teams of caregivers and other staff. These communities employ caregivers and other team members who are specially trained on dementia conditions and processes. They are equipped with the professional know-how to create personalized interventions that build trust as well as meaningful moments. Although staff at assisted living communities have experience caring for seniors with dementia, memory care teams undergo targeted training specifically for accommodating those with a dementia diagnosis.

This extra training means residents in memory care are not only treated with the best practices and techniques, but they also benefit from a warm, caring staff that balances medical needs with human connection. It also means family members can freely talk with caregivers about their concerns or questions, and team members can readily answer and provide guidance on how to make their visits as enjoyable as possible for everyone.

Engaging Activities

Another important part of living in a memory care community is attention to engagement. Exceptional memory care communities feature a robust calendar of events, activities, and trips that are designed to increase overall wellness—and offer some well-deserved fun.

Seniors with dementia who live at home alone or with a caregiver are at an increased risk of isolation. Not having that element of engaging social support can lead to a variety of health concerns, including more rapid cognitive decline. Memory care communities are hubs of activity, making connecting with staff members or fellow residents as easy as stepping out into the hallway or attending the next social event.

Engaging activities support healthy socialization as well as contribute to wellness. Memory care communities offer a variety of options for residents to enjoy, from large group activities to smaller group interactions and even one-on-one visits. When it comes to activities, residents have the option to come and go as they please, and staff members are always there to invite and escort them to the next event.

Finally, in between group activities, residents living in memory care communities enjoy the opportunity to take part in activities that match their daily routine or rhythm. It’s not unusual to see a resident chatting with a caregiver while folding towels in the living room or a resident helping to set the table. These daily rhythm tasks help to maintain healthy sleep patterns, decrease anxiety caused by confusion, and increase feelings of belonging.

Is Memory Care Right for Your Loved One?

If your parent or loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a memory care community likely offers the support and stability they need to lead a pleasant and productive lifestyle. In contrast, assisted living communities are better suited for those who may need help with some ADLs, but are otherwise safe to go about their days unsupervised.

There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to picking a memory care community. Some of the major considerations include:

  • Location in relation to family or friends
  • Access to customized personal care plans
  • Event and activity calendar
  • Staff specialties and training 
  • Cost and included amenities

When it’s time to take a tour of the top choices, inquire about the above inclusions and any other concerns you may have. And if you need additional support or guidance for helping your loved one with dementia, check out our Caregiver’s Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia: Practical Tips for Your Loved One and Yourself.

Discover everyday care tips to support a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

This post was originally published in February 2021 and updated in March 2024.

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