Facing the decision about transitioning into an assisted living environment can be challenging under the best circumstances, but the process becomes even more difficult when it is complicated by concerns about Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Recognizing the signs that someone with Alzheimer’s needs assisted living is the first step. Following that it is important to understand what the goals of memory care are and what different types of living environments are available.
Recognizing the Need for Assisted Living
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of choosing assisted living for your parent who has Alzheimer’s is recognizing that they can no longer live alone or that you are no longer equipped to provide the care that they need. Though people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s may be able to live independently for a brief period, the eventual progression of their condition becomes evident and will present a danger to their safety. Early signals include phone calls to you or to friends in the middle of the night, a lack of responsiveness in conversation, and a loss of proactive communication and involvement with family and friends. This is often followed by more worrying signs, including:
- Weight loss or gain
- Inappropriate dress or lack of hygiene
- Dramatic shifts in sleeping habits
- Marked changes in the household, including the thermostat being set too high or too low, refrigerator empty or full of spoiled food, unwashed dishes, piles of unopened mail, burned pots and pans, spills that have not been cleaned, the smell of urine in the home
The most urgent indications of the need for supervised care is when your loved one is wandering from home and getting lost. When any of these symptoms arise, the question of placement into a care community shifts from an “if” to a “which.”
Finding the Right Assisted Living Facility
Though it may feel like you are alone in facing the challenge of a parent with Alzheimer’s or dementia, the truth is that over half of all residents of assisted living and nursing homes have some form of cognitive impairment. Because of its prevalence, care facilities and advocates have gone to great strides to identify and address the needs of those who require what has come to be known as memory care. Food and fluid consumption, pain management, and social engagement are the primary concerns of quality Alzheimer’s care, as are addressing wandering. When you are looking for the right assisted living facility, you should prioritize care that understands that those with dementia are still able to experience happiness and meaning in their lives, and who work to that end. Optimal care balances all of the clinical needs — including assessment of abilities and care planning — with the establishment of healthy relationships between residents, staff and the family.
Types of Residential Care
Though assisted living has become a catch-all phrase for care that precedes nursing homes and long-term care facilities, those who seek supervision and care for residents who have dementia or Alzheimer’s have a wide spectrum of options, and choosing the right one often depends upon the progression of the cognitive impairment. Those who are in the early stages of the disease may simply need retirement housing that eases their level of responsibility and provides them with limited supervision. Assisted living provides the next step, and provides the additional support of meals, maintenance, and the availability of supportive services. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities are for those whose care needs exceed what an assisted living facility can provide. They primarily address nutrition and medical care, though they may also provide for recreation and social needs.
Some residential communities offer a continuum of these services. Referred to as continuing care retirement communities, they provide the convenience of allowing a resident to progress from independent living to more active levels of care without having to relocate.
Memory Care Units
Many assisted living facilities and nursing homes offer their residents with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia the availability of special care units, or SCUs that provide 24-hour supervision. Also known as memory care units, these environments are equipped for the particular type of care needed by those who suffer from memory deficits. In most cases, a memory care unit will be housed within a larger residential facility but will provide additional levels of staffing, attention and security to prevent wandering and keep residents safe. Staff members are specially trained and provide both medical care and assistance with basic needs such as grooming, hygiene, eating and medications. They also host and facilitate social activities with the structure needed by those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. One of the advantages of a memory care unit is that it is able to provide for any medical needs and the treatment of serious conditions within the safety of its specialized environment.
Costs of Assisted Living for Residents with Alzheimer’s
Unfortunately, because those who need memory care have such specialized needs, the costs of living in a dedicated care unit are often higher than those of a residence community that serves a more general population. Much of the cost is dependent upon the level of security and staffing provided, though factors such as geography, room size, public or private residence and additional amenities also contribute, as they do in any assisted living environment.
What to Look For in a Memory Care Unit
As is true for every decision about assisted living, make sure that you take the time to do some research and to visit a number of different care facilities. Take careful note of the condition of the residents and see whether the staff is friendly and open when you are on your tour. When you are close to making a decision, go back and visit at different times of the day so that you can see the different shifts and how the mood may change, as well as how a variety of different services are provided.
There are certain questions that it is important to ask in anticipation of the changing needs of your parent. These include:
- How are families notified of changes in condition or treatment?
- Are communication channels between family and staff available?,/li>
- What services and programming are provided specifically for those with Alzheimer’s?
- How much freedom of movement is there within the specialized care unit?
- How much visitation is allowed by family and friends?
Finding the right environment for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease can be difficult, but the more you take the time to educate yourself and investigate your options, the more comfortable you will be with the decision that you make.