Assisted Living focuses on maintaining the independence of residents while giving the helping hand that is sometimes needed for more general daily tasks or health maintenance. A senior who loves living at home because of the independence but who is not able to keep up with daily tasks would thrive in Assisted Living. Same for a senior living at home who has a history of falling, a senior who feels unsafe or anxious at home, or a senior with chronic pain or a condition requiring medical management. Of course, Assisted Living communities are not just for single seniors—couples that share an apartment in Assisted Living communities are able to socialize with new neighbors and eliminate the stress involved with household tasks.
But what about seniors with Alzheimer’s Disease or other types of dementia? Thankfully, there’s a great alternative for seniors who can no longer cope on their own because of cognitive impairment. Assisted Living Memory Care communities. These residences can actually improve the quality of life for people with dementia, helping them to function at the highest possible level for the longest possible time. Here’s a brief look at the differences between these senior living options and what you need to know as you weigh your decision.
Memory Care communities and Assisted Living communities both share similar staff, such as nurses and nursing assistants. But Memory Care staff have additional training and experience with the issues people living with dementia often face — such as swallowing difficulties, wandering, and anxiety. Staff working in Memory Care communities are all required by most states to attend continuing education classes that help them understand the brains of people living with dementia while mastering strategies for mitigating distress and supporting residents. If your loved one seems anxious or has problem behaviors, or you have trouble supporting and reassuring them at home, Memory Care is usually the superior option.
Assisted Living communities focus on entertaining residents, but Memory Care communities offer dementia-specific activities tailored to their unique cognitive needs. For example, music therapy, puzzles, trivia games and exercise programs all can help your loved one with dementia access different parts of their brain. Seniors living with dementia often express their distress with challenging behaviors so small group activities are planned because large groups can provoke anxiety in people with dementia. The right properly timed intervention can also prevent expressions of worry, by keeping seniors busy and involved with their environment.
Assisted Living communities offer three meals per day, often in a wonderfully social setting. For Memory Care residents, getting adequate nutrition can be a significant challenge as they often experience decreased taste and smell or have difficulty swallowing or chewing. Memory Care staff encourage residents to eat and pay special attention to food preparation. Some recipes may call for ground ingredients in the meals, which make chewing and swallowing easier or specify preparation in bite-size pieces, eliminating the need for silverware, which some dementia patients cannot use.
In addition, colorful plates make meals more attractive and make it easy for residents to distinguish foodstuff from the dishes. Programs that put emphasis on solving eating issues show improved nutrition and decreased weight loss in dementia patients who have access to them.
Memory Care communities also offer an environment that is especially suited to the needs of those with memory and judgment issues. Because safety is first and foremost, these buildings have features that help prevent residents from wandering out without making them feel like they’re in a prison. In some cases, residents have access to the outside through enclosed courtyards. The buildings are also easy to navigate and color-coded hallways are often used. In some communities, photos or mementos in “memory boxes” outside the room help them remember their room number. Lighting may also be used as a cue to help residents know the time of day—bright lights for daytime and low lights for the night. Large windows are typically used so that residents are exposed to more natural light, which may reduce the symptoms of dementia. Some communities even provide controlled multisensory rooms designed with soothing colors, relaxing sounds, and comfortable chairs.
Making a Decision
People with early dementia who live well independently or only need a bit of daily help may thrive in an Assisted Living community, while a dementia care community may be too restrictive. If your loved one struggles with daily functioning, needs support most of the time, or seems afraid and lonely living at home, it’s time to give them the gift of dementia care.
In addition to general state-level licensing, 23 states require memory care providers to disclose the special services they offer. 27 states do not have disclosure laws, making it necessary to carefully research each memory care community you look at before making a decision.
No matter which option you choose, select a community with extensive experience supporting seniors. Ask many questions and notice if there are smiles on residents’ faces, and that people are having conversations and socializing. Most of all, make sure your loved one feels comfortable when you visit the community.