Navigating elder care can be a daunting and confusing task. If you are seeking care for a loved one suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, you need a residential facility specifically geared toward “memory care.” Here we breakdown how “memory care” differs from assisted living.   

Memory care vs.  assisted living. 

A memory care facility is a type of skilled nursing designed specifically for people diagnosed with memory problems. Often you will find a special memory care unit within an assisted living community or a nursing home. Memory care centers ensure that residents won’t wander away; exits are carefully monitored. Employees and visiting specialists facilitate daily social events and potentially therapeutic activities. They provide meals, health care and personal care. All states regulate and license senior care centers, but many states lack special criteria for memory care nursing homes. It’s important to compare facilities carefully.  

Many of the same services are offered at assisted living facilities as in memory care units. However, there are also several ways in which assisted living differs from memory care. 


Lack of kitchens. 

Memory care units are typically architecturally designed to meet the specific needs of Alzheimer’s patients. Unlike some assisted living facilities, memory care units do not have individual kitchens for their residents. This is to keep the stress of those with dementia at a minimum. 


While some assisted living facilities do have secure areas to accommodate those with mild dementia, memory care units put an extra emphasis on security to prevent patients from wandering, which is a common occurrence with advanced dementia. The best locations will offer a secure outside area, so that patients can still enjoy being outdoors, while being unable to leave the property. 

Relaxing environment. 

Stress and confusion are hallmarks of individuals with dementia. Memory care facilities will create a relaxing environment, commonly through soothing common areas, rooms with colorful paint and a lot of natural light.   


Safety checks. 

In a memory care unit, safety checks will be conducted more frequently. Some facilities even utilize tracking bracelets that will sound an alarm if a resident goes too near an exit.  

More regimented structure. 

Those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s are easily stressed in unfamiliar environments and from lack of routine. Therefore, memory care units follow a more rigid scheduling structure than assisted living. 

Meal design. 

Sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease often display a lack of appetite, so memory care units will go the extra mile to design meals that appeal to residents. This can be achieved simply by contrasting between the color of the food and the plate it’s served so that residents can easily see their food. They also offer flexible options so there will be items that will appeal to residents.  

Extra safety measures.

Because confusion is a hallmark of those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, memory care units take greater lengths to ensure the safety of their residents. [Text Wrapping Break]Some of the things they do are lock up items that can be poisonous when misused, such as shampoo, laundry detergent and mouthwash. 

Staff training & skills. 

In assisted living facilities, staff are trained to assist patients with their activities of daily living, such as helping an individual to bathe and offering help with changing clothes. In memory care units, staff  handle these tasks, but they are also trained to manage the specific needs of those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. This training includes understanding disease and disruptive behavior manifestations and how to respond to it. Also key is  how to communicate with individuals with dementia. 

Staff to patient ratio.

There currently is no nationally set guideline for the staff to patient ratio for assisted living facilities. Memory care units do require a higher staff to patient ratio in order to adequately provide the care needed for persons with dementia. An ideal staff to resident ratio is one staff member to five residents. This is not nationally governed, and one staff member to six residents is quite common. It’s worth noting that even in well-run, properly staffed memory care units, the needs of an individual resident may exceed what the staff can offer. In these situations, the family may be asked to pay for several hours of outside care assistance each day. 

Community size. 

Assisted living communities offer a number of options as far as size. There are small communities that house four to six people, medium communities that house 11 to 25 people, large communities that house 26 to 100 people. There are even communities that house over 100 people. As with the size of assisted living communities, memory care units also range in size from small to large. However, it’s rare to find a memory care facility with more than 100 residents. It’s worth noting that the \ number of residents has little impact on cost, as ratios remain the same.  Some individuals with dementia will feel more comfortable with a greater number of fellow residents and others with fewer. It’s important to take your loved ones preferences into account and choose accordingly.  

Stand-alone memory care vs. memory care wings. 

Stand-alone memory care units are generally better designed to specifically meet the needs of individuals with Alzheimer’s or related dementias. Often these types of residences are designed architecturally, with research that has been proven to make occupants feel as comfortable as possible. Considerations include a circular layout and more windows, allowing the soothing vistas of nature in.  Those with advanced dementia feel an increased level of stress when approaching a barrier in their environment, such as a hallway that comes to an end. A circular layout allows allows residents the freedom to safely wander. 


For both assisted living and memory care, several variables come into play when it comes to cost. These include the geographic area in which one lives, whether one has a private room or a shared living space, and the amount of care service one requires. However, due to the specialized dementia care that is offered at memory care units, this type of care is overall more costly than assisted living. On average, one can expect to pay approximately $3,700 / month for assisted living and $5,400 / month to reside in a memory care unit. More specific regional cost information for dementia care is available using this regional Cost of Care Calculator

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment

sandwich generationmemory care