Memory Care Vs. Nursing Homes: What’s the Difference?


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Key Takeaways

  1. The main difference between memory care communities and nursing homes is the level of care. Both settings provide personal care and close supervision, but nursing homes also provide skilled nursing care.
  2. Memory care caters to seniors with memory loss. These communities are designed to minimize confusion and maximize safety, and their staff receive specialized training in dementia care.
  3. Memory care can be combined with skilled nursing. Seniors with dementia and serious health conditions can receive skilled nursing services in a memory care unit within a nursing home.
  4. Nursing home care is more expensive than memory care. Typically, the higher the level of care provided, the more it costs.

What to expect in memory care

Memory care communities provide 24-hour specialized care for people with memory loss. Residents typically receive meals and help with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, dressing, and medication management.

Additional features typically include person-centered care, unique memory care programming, and secure design features to improve residents’ safety and quality of life.


Staff trained in dementia care

Memory care communities require specialized training and memory care classes for staff caregivers. Once properly trained, memory care staff recognize and cope with common dementia behaviors and symptoms, such as:


Specialized programming

Activities in memory care are carefully selected to help engage seniors’ brains, soothe common dementia symptoms, and improve seniors’ overall health.

Memory care programs often include the following therapies and activities:

  • Sensory and reminiscence therapies (musicscent, taste, light, art, and pet therapies)
  • Brain fitness activities (puzzles, memory games, etc.)
  • Fitness activities (chair yoga, tai chi, walking club, etc.)


Safe, secure environments

Safety is a key priority at memory care facilities, and they’re often equipped with built-in safety features. These may include locked and alarmed exit doors to prevent wandering.

Memory care communities are also designed to reduce confusion and create a homelike environment for seniors with memory loss. The following architectural and design features are common in memory care facilities:

  • Color-coded walls
  • Clearly defined shared spaces
  • Enclosed gardens or courtyards
  • Personalized memory boxes outside residents’ doors
  • Keypad entrances for family or staff

What to expect in nursing homes

Nursing homes provide 24-hour skilled nursing care and supervision, meals, and assistance with activities of daily living to individuals who have serious health issues or chronic conditions. Like most memory care facilities, they offer activities, but they’re typically not as personalized and robust.


Short-term or long-term care

There are typically two types of care options available in nursing homes:

  • Short-term care. Skilled nursing care and rehabilitation services are available to people recovering from an illness, surgery, or acute injury. These services are typically provided at skilled nursing facilities, which specifically accommodate shorter stays.
  • Long-term care. Long-term care is available to people with cognitive disorders, terminal illnesses, or chronic medical conditions.


Skilled nursing services

In addition to robust personal care assistance, nursing homes provide skilled care services. These services must be provided by registered nurses or other trained, licensed professionals under the supervision of a doctor. Most memory care communities cannot legally provide this level of care.

Nursing homes offer the following skilled services to help seniors improve or maintain their health:

  • Medication management and administration
  • Wound care
  • IV therapies
  • Respiratory therapy
  • Rehabilitative therapies (speech, occupational, and physical)


Strict admission requirements

Nursing home care requires a physician’s prescription and physical exam before a resident can move in.

Seniors may qualify for nursing home care in the following situations:

  • They need rehabilitative services.
  • They require continuous supervision.
  • They need significant help with daily activities, such as walking, eating, bathing, and dressing.
  • They need frequent assistance managing health conditions and medications.

Nursing homes are subject to both federal and state regulations. Therefore, it’s important to check with your state’s Medicaid agency or licensing agency for more specific information.


Nursing home vs. memory care: What services are offered?

To help you get an overview of what to expect, here’s a comparison of services that can be found in nursing homes and memory care facilities:

Services Memory Care Nursing Homes
Meal services x x
Housekeeping and laundry services x x
Social activities x x
Medication management x x
Help with daily activities (ADLs) x x
Specialized care for patients with memory loss x x
24-hour care and supervision x x
Secured entrances and exits to prevent wandering x x
Rehabilitative therapies as needed x
Memory-enhancing therapies x
Unique facility layout and design to reduce confusion x
Transportation to appointments x

Combining memory care with skilled nursing

Sometimes the difference between memory care and a nursing home can get blurry — especially when these two care types are combined. If your loved one has significant health issues besides dementia, you may wonder if they can receive memory care services within a nursing home. In short, yes, they can.

Individuals with dementia can receive skilled nursing services along with memory care in these settings:

  • Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). These communities offer multiple levels of care in one convenient location. Independent livingassisted living, memory care, and nursing home care may all be available on the same campus. This unique care option allows seniors with dementia to transition into memory care and access necessary skilled nursing services on an as-needed basis with minimal disruption.
  • Memory care units within a nursing home. Some nursing homes designate a separate space or wing in the facility to accommodate the needs of residents with memory loss.[01] In a nursing home memory care unit, staff members typically have specialized training, and residents receive a higher level of medical care than in a stand-alone memory care facility.

“Oftentimes, families turn to skilled nursing when they run out of funding for private pay options like memory care,” says Rachel Levy, a senior national account manager at A Place for Mom with over two decades of senior living experience. “Another reason could be that the needs of a memory care resident exceed the state regulations of memory care or assisted living. For instance, if a resident can no longer feed themselves, they’d need to move to a nursing home.”

Cost of memory care vs. nursing homes

The national median cost of memory care is $6,200 per month, according to A Place for Mom’s 2024 report on the cost of long-term care.[02] On the other hand, the national median cost of a nursing home is $8,669 per month for a semi-private room and $9,733 per month for a private room.[03]

Many factors affect the cost of memory care communities and nursing homes:

  • Location. Some cities and states, such as New York and California, have a higher cost of living and different requirements that affect the overall cost.
  • Services provided. Services vary among communities. For example, personalized services to accommodate unique health care or dietary needs may cost more.
  • Type of unit. In many nursing homes and memory care facilities, residents can choose a private room or a shared room. Living with a roommate can help reduce long-term care expenses.

How to decide between memory care and a nursing home

The type of care your loved one ultimately needs depends on their mental and physical health.

Memory care is tailored to people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, but it only provides limited medical care. Seniors who need round-the-clock skilled nursing care and significant assistance with personal care may benefit from moving to a nursing home.


I recommend talking to a potential memory care community’s nursing staff about your family member’s needs. They’ll likely perform a free assessment, which can help indicate whether your family member would fit better in a memory care community or a nursing home.

If you’re unsure about what’s best for your loved one, talk with your family, your elderly loved one, and their doctor or case manager to better understand their unique care needs and local care options.

A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors can also help you navigate care options based on your loved one’s location, preferences, and needs — all at no cost to your family. Plus, they can help you learn the differences between memory care and home care and memory care and assisted living.

This article originally appeared on APlaceForMom and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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