Mar 8, 2015

Does My Loved One Need Memory Care?

If memory care is right for your loved one, embrace it. A quality memory care program should provide a sense of warmth, comfort and safety for your loved one.

By Nancy Kriseman
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Does My Loved One Need Memory Care? | Alzheimer's Reading Room

Three key factors to consider

“How will I know if my loved one needs memory care instead of assisted living?”

This is a question I am asked often in my work as a geriatric social worker, and also one that I have dealt with personally, as a caregiver to my mother, who lived with Alzheimer’s disease for 17 years.

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  • Memory care is a specialized setting that can be housed in a separate part of an assisted living community or its own free standing community. 
  • Memory care is a program designed for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, who require more structured activity and specialized, hands-on care than what is typically offered in general assisted living. 
  • Memory care typically offers a secured and locked environment, so that outside access occurs only with an escort from a staff member or a family member.
There are three primary factors to consider when determining whether or not your loved one needs to be in a memory care program: safety, problematic behaviors, and level of social engagement.


When a person develops dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, she can be a serious threat to her own safety. For example,
  • your loved one may drink mouthwash because she is thirsty, 
  • she may wander outside of her residence and get lost, 
  • or she may not know what to do in an emergency situation, such as a fire.
Memory care environments are designed in a way to mitigate safety risks.

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In many circumstances, when a person develops Alzheimer’s, judgment and reasoning, along with a person’s social filters, can be impacted. This in itself does not mean memory care is required, but when it leads to inappropriate behaviors, such as taking clothes in public or refusing to take a shower, it might be time to re-evaluate.

If your loved one is already in a general assisted living facility, other residents may not tolerate this type of behavior or may make fun of your loved one, leading to an uncomfortable and possibly hostile environment that is not healthy. Conversely, in a memory care program, this type of behavior is expected, often not as offensive to other residents, and dealt with compassionately.

Social Engagement

Unfortunately, many people who develop dementia are not able to plan their own activities and social engagements, either because they forget to do so, or because they become overwhelmed and confused.

As a result, your loved one can become socially isolated and depressed. Memory care programs are structured to help your loved one receive support throughout the entire day and stay active, engaging in meaningful activities that are geared specifically toward those with cognitive challenges.

In addition, activities in a memory care facility should help support the spirit of the person. Activities like music, dance, drumming, arts, and aromatherapy will help accomplish this goal. General assisted living communities offer programs, but expect the residents to engage in them mostly on their own.

However, even being more aware of these three factors, it can still be tremendously difficult to objectively assess your loved one’s needs.

Sometimes it’s not clear cut, other times people do not want to admit that their loved one’s disease if progressing. Healthcare professionals, geriatric social workers and others can be invaluable resources in the decision making process. I've also found that examples of others’ experiences in dealing with similar situations can be instructive as well.

In that vein, I offer the story of Sylvia, based on my work with a former client.

Does Sylvia Require Assisted Living or Memory Care?

Sylvia is diagnosed with dementia and has been living at home, but her dementia is progressing. She is having frequent issues with incontinence and failing to change her incontinence briefs. She struggles with what to fix for meals and seems to have forgotten much of her cooking skills. She spends most of her day sleeping or watching TV and doesn't want to do anything else. Her family doesn’t think she should live at home and believes assisted living care would be the best thing for her.

There are several important reasons that Sylvia would most likely benefit from memory care.

Sylvia was unable to remember how to cook, so it is possible, as exhibited by other elders with dementia, that she could forget to turn a burner off, creating a fire hazard. Sylvia’s problematic hygiene behaviors could result in health issues, such as skin breakdown or urinary tract infections. Lastly, Sylvia is interested in few activities and is at high risk for depression.

A memory care program could greatly improve Sylvia’s quality of life, enabling her to participate in supervised, accessible and meaningful activities, and enjoy the companionship of other residents and staff who are understanding and compassionate.

Bottom line: if memory care is right for your loved one, embrace it. A quality memory care program should provide a sense of warmth, comfort and safety for your loved one. This can help both of you feel more at ease.

Nancy Kriseman, LCSW, is author of The Mindful Caregiver: Finding Ease in the Caregiving Journey, and a geriatric social worker with more than 30 years of experience working with elders and their families. She is the founder of Geriatric Consulting Services, in Atlanta, GA, and specializes in Alzheimer’s and dementia caregiving issues.

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