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Assisted Living vs Memory Care: Understanding the Differences


If you’re just starting to research senior living options, the terms you’ll come across can make the task seem more daunting than it needs to be.

In this blog post, we’ll explain two of the most basic types of care available in many retirement communities, assisted living and memory care. We’ll also provide information about Alzheimer’s disease, including how to recognize symptoms of the various stages.

Keep reading, and you’ll learn about activities and hobbies for seniors that may help prevent or slow cognitive decline. In addition, we’ll suggest some safe, beneficial activities for people who are already living with dementia.


Memory Care or Assisted Living — Which Is Right for Your Loved One?

It’s not unusual for retirement communities to offer both types, or levels, of care. While both are typically intended for older adults, that’s really where the similarities end.


The Basics of Assisted Living

In a nutshell, assisted living is for people who need some assistance with routine, everyday tasks, like bathing and getting dressed, or reminders to take their medication. These are known as activities of daily living, or ADLs.

People in assisted living may be experiencing a slight decline in their cognitive abilities — perhaps some difficulty recalling names or other details, or some mild, temporary confusion from time to time. Overall, though, their memory is good and so is their ability to reason and make decisions.

Residences in assisted living communities are often much like an apartment you’d find elsewhere. Assisted living is designed to reduce or eliminate potential hazards while giving older adults the support they need to maintain a high degree of independence.

Most assisted living communities offer dining options, housekeeping services, and opportunities to socialize and safely exercise.


A Simple Explanation of Memory Care

Seniors with more advanced cognitive impairment may have trouble remembering to do even the most fundamental tasks, such as brushing their teeth or even eating. Those with diagnosed dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, may experience sudden and severe changes in mood that can lead to unexpected behaviors.  

Simply put, they would be at risk of harming themselves if left on their own. Family members may do their best to provide necessary care and keep their loved ones safe at home, but eventually the situation can become more than they are able to manage.

A memory care community is often staffed with caregivers who are specifically trained to help people with dementia. The staff-to-resident ratios are lower than in most assisted living communities, as residents generally require monitoring around the clock.

In many cases, the living spaces in a memory care community consist of private bedrooms (though sometimes bedrooms are shared by two residents), and a larger area that is used for social activities. Memory care communities also place an emphasis on making sure the environment is secure, including outside spaces, with clearly marked signage and other visual cues to help residents find their way from one area to another.   


The 7 Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are seven distinct stages associated with Alzheimer’s disease, which is a form of dementia.

You may be wondering, “What are the symptoms of the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease?” We’ll get to that shortly. Let’s start at the beginning.

Stage 1: Someone with what is called preclinical Alzheimer’s disease appears to be mentally healthy, even though changes in the brain have most likely been occurring for years. There are no symptoms of dementia.

Stage 2: People at this stage may not be able to remember names as easily as they once did, or they may not remember where they’ve put items like their keys or glasses. At least initially, friends and family either won’t notice any difference or they’ll attribute the changes to the “normal aging” process. For those who are healthy otherwise, this stage can last 15 years or so.


Stage 3: Someone at this stage has mild cognitive impairment. Friends and family members will begin to notice certain changes in the person’s abilities, such as difficulty making plans, organizing events, concentrating, or mastering new complex skills. This may or may not be Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s crucial to seek professional medical help to determine what is causing the cognitive deficits.  


Stage 4: This is the first stage of dementia, in which there’s a moderate decline in cognition. For instance, people at this stage may not be able to pay bills or shop for groceries without assistance, and they may show obvious signs of memory loss. Long-term memories may be easier to access than recent ones. It’s not uncommon for people at this stage to be in denial, and they may withdraw from social activities in an attempt to conceal their decline. By this point in the progression, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease usually can be made with a high level of accuracy.


Stage 5: By the time someone reaches this stage, there’s a moderately severe decline in cognitive abilities. At this point, people with Alzheimer’s disease might not be able to choose appropriate clothing to wear. At times, they may not remember their home address or friends and family members. They may wander and get lost, even in familiar surroundings. There may be changes in personality, such as increased irritability or anger, apathy, suspicion, or paranoia. Hallucinations and delusional thoughts may occur. If no other health conditions are present, this stage can last more than a decade.


Stage 6: At this point, people with Alzheimer’s disease may have considerable difficulty communicating. They will be more reliant on others for assistance with ADLs. It’s not unusual for them to be confused about their relationships with family members — for example, they might believe their spouse is their parent. They may fidget or pace, or be prone to violent outbursts.


Stage 7: In the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease, people often have a high degree of physical and mental impairment. They may no longer be able to walk or sit up on their own. Some of their muscles may become rigid, and they may not be able to control their bladder or bowels. Eventually, even swallowing may become difficult. They are more susceptible to infections, including pneumonia.


The overall rate of progression varies considerably. Once a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease has been made, individuals can live for a few years or more than 20. Much depends on how early treatment begins and how healthy the person is otherwise.


Preventing or slowing cognitive decline

Just as keeping physically active can help the body stay healthy, keeping mentally active can help the brain stay healthy. Regular physical activity also appears to help with cognition — possibly because it tends to improve sleep, circulation, and other factors that may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.  


What are the best types of physical activity for people with dementia?

It depends on their capabilities. Dancing, exercise classes, and swimming or water aerobics are good options for those who can function at higher levels.

Gardening, tai chi, stretching and strengthening routines, and typical household chores are all activities that people with some moderate degree of dementia and physical limitations may still be able to engage in.

For those with more advanced dementia and/or physical impairment, walking is still one of the best forms of physical exercise, if that is a possibility. Gentle exercises to help with balance and to stretch and strengthen muscles are a good idea — as long as they are done with supervision. Some exercises can be done while seated or even while lying in bed.


What are the best mental activities for people with dementia?

Here too, it depends on their capabilities. Those in the earlier stages may still enjoy reading, working on projects, or doing different types of puzzles, including sudoku and brain teasers. Many “brain games” are available online, and seniors who can use a computer or tablet may find these fun to do.

For seniors with more advanced impairment cognitive, painting, drawing with colored pencils and other arts-and-craft projects may be enjoyable. Large-format jigsaw puzzles for the elderly are available with pieces that are easier to handle and see. Karaoke and trivia are popular memory care exercises. The idea is to engage various parts of the brain, including those that are responsible for memory.   


Memory Care at Avenir Senior Living

In all of our communities that offer memory care, we use an approach called the Cognitive Lifestyle. This involves several basic components:

  • We pair residents with the neighborhood in the community that best aligns with their specific cognitive capabilities. Older adults with dementia usually feel most comfortable around others who are at a similar point in the journey.
  • All memory care neighborhoods within a given community have the same design, to provide a sense of familiarity as the resident moves through the stages of memory loss.
  • Memory care team members with specialized training know how to engage with residents in ways to prevent certain behaviors and calm them if they become anxious or agitated.
  • We offer an abundance of activities that are tailored to residents’ specific interests and abilities. This encourages them to gently challenge themselves and gives them a sense of purpose.

If you would like to learn more about our memory care services, contact us today. You can also check out Our Communities to find the Avenir Senior Living location nearest you.


Learn More About Our Cognitive Lifestyle