Memory care vs. nursing homes

Deciding on senior housing can be difficult. This is especially true if your senior has dementia or other conditions. In this case, you’re likely considering memory care vs. nursing homes, but aren’t sure which is best. There are stark differences between these two types of care facilities and you’ll want to understand their unique features. To help inform your decision, let’s take a deep-dive into memory care vs. nursing homes and the ideal profiles for both. 

How do I decide between memory care vs. nursing homes?

Senior housing involves a lot of different factors. In particular, memory care and nursing homes are often intended for seniors with dementia or other chronic conditions. This means your loved one’s health is top on your priority list. Some other factors in your decision may include:

  • Level of medical need
  • Level of independence in performing daily tasks (like bathing and dressing)
  • Risk of wandering or getting lost 
  • Current caregiving situation
  • Level of isolation or loneliness 
  • Financial situation

As you make your housing decision, you’ll want to weigh these priorities. Figuring out what’s most important to you or a loved one will help you make tough choices. 

About memory care

Memory care is intended for patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia to provide safe living quarters, create routines and enrich skills with trained staff. These care units often have code-controlled doors to prevent wandering, as well as personalized “memory boxes” to help patients find their way around the living quarters. 

Memory care staff are specifically trained on dementia needs to prevent confusion and agitation. Often these care units have a schedule of recreational and community activities to help patients find joy too.

Memory care is a 24/7 facility, which means it often provides support for custodial care, meals, medication, housekeeping, etc. 

Profile: Seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia who are no longer able to live alone, due to wandering, agitation or inability to perform daily tasks. They may also feel lonely or unsafe by themselves. They’d benefit from the safety and community of a memory care unit. 

Housing: Memory care units are often private rooms in apartment-like housing. Common spaces are also included for community use. Kitchenettes aren’t typically available due to the risk. 

Amenities: Custodial care, meals and nutrition, medication support, laundry and housekeeping, and 24-hour staff trained in dementia care.

Staff: Regular daily contact.

ADL care: Often included. 

Nursing care: Sometimes nursing care included, though it might be charged as a separate fee. 

Cost: Varies widely ($3,000-$7,000) depending on location and facility. Typically it’s 20-30% more expensive than assisted living.  

Payment method: Nursing care likely covered by Medicare, Medicaid, Aid and Attendance benefits, or private insurance. ADL care, room and board, meals, etc. are usually paid privately (unless Medicaid).

Benefits: Safe, enriching, social environment for dementia patients.

About nursing homes 

Nursing homes have a bad reputation, but they’re excellent in terms of providing 24/7 specialized nursing care. Many care facilities have also improved in recent years to provide a more holistic experience for seniors, including recreational activities. 

Profile: Seniors who require specialized nursing care, due to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, etc. The nursing home provides a 24/7 level of care. Because the focus is on care, there aren’t usually extra amenities. 

Housing: Nursing home living arrangements are typically private or shared rooms with some common areas available. 

Amenities: Varies greatly depending on the facility. May include meals, housekeeping, laundry, transportation and recreational activities.

Staff: Daily 24/7 contact with nurse and/or health aide. Medication management, as well as more serious care plans for chronic illnesses. 

ADL care: Provided daily, as seniors are too ill or injured to perform daily tasks. 

Nursing care: Provided daily, as seniors are too ill or injured to live without 24/7 care.

Cost: $8,121/month for a private room or $7,148/month for a shared room (according to Genworth’s Cost of Care Survey).

Payment method: Nursing care likely covered by Medicare, Medicaid, Aid and Attendance benefits, or private insurance. Other amenities are usually paid privately (unless Medicaid).

Benefits: Daily specialized care and sense of community. 

Example profiles of memory care vs. nursing homes

Let’s look at some example profiles of seniors who are looking for new senior housing arrangements. These situations will help you better understand whether memory care or a nursing home is right for you. 

Memory care vs. nursing homes situation #1: Jane

Ever since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Jane has struggled with mobility. She lost some motor functions and can’t perform daily tasks such as getting dressed or cooking meals. She also requires specialized physical therapy to relearn certain skills. During this process, Jane is also feeling lonely and would like to make new connections with other seniors. Currently, Jane has Medicare coverage and owns a small home.

Best choice: Nursing home. Jane requires specialized nursing care. She’s also unable to care for herself (bathing, feeding, etc.), which is performed at nursing homes. If she finds a Medicare-approved nursing home facility, short-term physical therapy will be covered. However, for long-term care and other amenities such as meals and laundry, Jane might consider selling her home. 

Memory care vs. nursing homes situation #2: Vincent

Vincent lives alone and was recently diagnosed with dementia after his son noticed he was forgetting to turn off the stove. Though he’s otherwise healthy, his memory is quickly deteriorating, making him feel confused and lonely. His son is worried about his safety and unsure what to do if his dementia gets worse. He has Medicare and is a former veteran. 

Best choice: Memory care. Though Vincent doesn’t yet need extra help with daily tasks, his safety is at risk. He could benefit from amenities such as meals and recreational activities to make friends with other seniors. At a memory care facility, Vincent will be able to get a continuum of care if his dementia gets worse. His daily care will be covered by veteran’s benefits and any more serious nursing care will be covered by Medicare. Other amenities like meals he may have to pay for out-of-pocket. 

Now that you have a sense of both memory care and nursing homes, let’s compare the two in greater depth.

Comparing memory care vs. nursing homes in depth

As you can see, both housing options include daily amenities, such as meals, housekeeping/maintenance and recreation. However, there are serious differences in other aspects of these senior housing options. 

To help you understand the differences, we’ve created this comparison chart, so you can best find out which option fits best with your needs. 

Memory careNursing home
HousingPrivate rooms in apartment-like housing. Common spaces are also included for community use. Private or semi-private apartment; room may be shared to cut costs
AmenitiesCustodial care, meals and nutrition, medication support, laundry and housekeeping, and 24-hour staff trained in dementia care.Fewer amenities, such as standard meals and amenities.
ADL careOften included.24/7 care 
Nursing careSometimes nursing care included, though it might be charged as a separate fee.24/7 care 
CostVaries widely ($3,000-$7,000) depending on location and facility.$7,000-$8,000/month
Payment methodNursing care likely covered by Medicare, Medicaid, Aid and Attendance benefits, or private insurance. 

ADL care, room and board, meals, etc. are usually paid privately (unless Medicaid).
Nursing care covered by Medicare, Medicaid, Aid and Attendance VA benefits, or private insurance. 

ADL care, room and board, meals, etc. are usually paid privately (unless Medicaid).

Conclusion

As you make your decision about senior housing, you should consider all these factors. While memory care and nursing homes have some overlap, they are unique in focus.

Remember that senior housing entails a wide range of options. You can learn more about senior housing options and other senior topics at My Caring Plan. Simply start your search for memory care or nursing homes near you by entering your zip code. 

Sources:

  1. Memory Care, AARP, www.aarp.org
  2. Memory Care, AssistedLiving.org, www.assistedliving.org

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