Memory care, also called dementia care, is residential care that focuses specifically on people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. This article describes the key features of memory care and when it might be the best care option. It then describes the three main types of memory care facilities.
Features of memory care
Memory care, also called dementia care, is residential care that focuses specifically on people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Memory care is offered in special units or areas of some assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes), as well as in standalone facilities.
Memory care facilities or units feature services customized to the symptoms and care needs of older people with dementia. These may include:
- Staff who are specially trained in caring for people with dementia and addressing their behaviors—for instance, aggression, hypersexuality, and wandering
- 24-hour supervision to prevent wandering
- Safety features such as door alarms, coded elevators, tracking devices, and enclosed yards
- Memory-aid features such as color coding in hallways and “memory boxes” (boards with photos) on the person’s apartment door
- Anxiety-reducing features such as secure gardens, controlled lighting, and multisensory rooms
- Cognitive therapies such as sensory activities, brain games, and touch therapy
When to consider memory care
While the large majority of caring for older adults with dementia takes place at home,1 people whose disease has gone beyond the early stage may be more safely and effectively cared for in a memory care facility.
A memory care unit or facility might be appropriate if:
- The older adult has mid- to late-stage dementia
- The older adult is becoming aggressive or starting to wander
- The older adult might benefit from the structure and socialization that a facility provides
- The home cannot be sufficiently adapted to keep the person safe
- Caregivers can no longer physically handle the person well enough to give them proper care (for instance, lifting or restraining them)
- Caregivers are highly stressed, burned out, worried about the person’s safety and well-being, or worried about their own safety
Memory care in assisted living
Assisted living facilities (also known as assisted living communities) are residences for older adults who are still active but need help with some activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, dressing, or eating. Memory care units at assisted living facilities, also known as Alzheimer’s special care units (SCUs), may be a cluster of rooms or a floor of the building. They are appropriate for older adults with dementia who, like the other residents, need help but not extensive medical care.
Memory care at assisted living facilities provides generally the same services and amenities as in the main part of the facility, including meals, recreational activities, and private and semiprivate rooms. However, the memory care area provides more structure and assistance. For example, staff will help residents get to meals and activities. Additionally, the activities are more focused on addressing cognitive function, and may include brain games, music therapy, and gardening.
When an assisted living facility has a memory care section, it is possible for the older adult to start in the regular part of the facility and then transition into the memory care area when their care needs increase. However, state regulations usually do not allow a person with dementia to stay in or be admitted to an assisted living facility once they are either unable to walk or develop additional medical needs.2
Memory care in skilled nursing facilities
Skilled nursing facilities, commonly referred to as nursing homes, are hospital-like facilities for people with medical needs that require extensive care and monitoring. A person with dementia usually needs to move into a nursing home from home or from an assisted living facility under the following situations:
- when they are in the latest stages of dementia
- if they have other medical care needs (such as having a stroke or developing diabetes)
- if they become non-ambulatory (unable to walk)
Memory care services, quality, and regulations within nursing homes vary widely by state and facility. The memory care aspect of the facility can be either separated from the regular care or integrated into the rest of the facility. Larger facilities are much more likely to have specialized units.3 Care can range from something as basic as use of dementia-specific medications and alarms on the doors to a comprehensive program with special activities and staff who have more experience in working with people with dementia.
About half of states require specialized training for staff interacting with people who have dementia, though this may be only a few extra hours.4 Staff in designated dementia-care units receive more extensive dementia-specific training,5 and these units have been shown to provide better care for dementia patients.6
Memory care communities
Memory care communities, also called standalone memory care homes and memory care assisted living, are facilities that are designed entirely for older adults with dementia. Generally speaking, they provide care at the same level as assisted living facilities, rather than skilled nursing facilities, and in many states are regulated under the same laws as assisted living facilities.
Memory care communities can provide excellent quality of life and care to people with moderate dementia. They feature activities, therapies, physical layouts, and safety and security measures specifically designed to create an environment that supports older adults with dementia. For example, most have circular hallways to allow the residents to wander safely, color-coded hallways, and therapies such as music and pet therapy that focus on easing dementia symptoms like agitation and confusion.
Assisted living facilities
Balance care responsibities
Dementia: support for caregivers
Investigate long term care
Nursing homes and memory care
Skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes)
Paying for long term care
External supporting content
1 Caregiving for a Person with Alzheimer’s Disease or a Related Dementia. CDC.
2 Comparing Memory Care & Nursing Homes: Differences in Care, Costs & Medicare’s Benefits. Dementia Care Central.
3 Operating Characteristics of Residential Care Communities, by Community Bed Size: United States, 2012. National Center for Health Statistics.
4 Training to Serve People with Dementia: Is our Health Care System Ready? Justice In Aging.
5 Training to Serve People with Dementia: Is our Health Care System Ready? Justice In Aging.
6 The Impact of Dementia Special Care Units on Quality of Care: An Instrumental Variables Analysis. Health Services Research.