Assisted living v. memory care: What’s the difference?

From care services to cost, this article will help you navigate your options.

October 27, 2023

4 min read

Three seniors potting plants outside

If you’re just starting to explore senior living communities for your parent, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. From cost to care levels and quality of life, there’s a lot to consider. This article will help you understand the difference between memory care and assisted living.

What does assisted living offer?

Assisted living communities help older adults maintain independence by offering private apartments, daily meals, transportation and 24-hour support for essential activities of daily living – or ADLs – including:

  • Bathing
  • Getting dressed
  • Toileting
  • Transferring to and from a bed or chair
  • Eating
  • Incontinence management

Some families delay making the move to senior living until an incident forces their hand. However, waiting for an accident or higher care need may make it harder to transition to a new environment and integrate into the community. In addition to assistance with daily life, one of the greatest benefits of senior living is staying physically and socially active through community events.

Quiz: Assisted Living or Memory Care – Which Is the Better Fit?

What is memory care?

Memory care communities offer a safe and secure environment where specially trained staff offer round-the-clock care and supervision. These tailored communities plan events that cater to the abilities of memory care residents, design spaces that feel soothing and familiar, and offer opportunities to socialize – all of which can help cognition and mood. As an added layer of security, entries and exits at a memory care community remain secured to prevent wandering.

The primary differences between assisted living and memory care are the level of assistance and security offered in the community. However, some communities offer both options in the event a resident’s care needs change.

Can someone with dementia live in assisted living?

Jason Shott is an Atria Regional Vice President with a long history of researching and working in memory care communities. He notes that many residents in assisted living experience mild cognitive impairment (referred to as MCI), including quickly forgetting names, or difficulty planning and organizing.

“When you begin to notice these symptoms, the first step is to go to a physician – preferably a geriatrician – to rule out medical reasons such as mini strokes or a UTI,” Shott says.

If symptoms are truly related to the beginning stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, the social and cognitive stimulation a community environment offers may help with cognition, and symptoms can be managed until the disease progresses. In later stages, however, it may become necessary to seek an environment that’s dedicated to maintaining the safety and well-being of those living with dementia.

Signs it’s time for memory care

If you’re wondering if memory care is the right choice for your parent, there are a few things to consider. Shott recommends asking yourself if your family member:

  • Is safe in their current living situation
  • Has become withdrawn and moody
  • Struggles to recall the date or time
  • Is experiencing difficulty sleeping, including sundowning (confusion or agitation in the late afternoon and into the night)
  • Has begun wandering
  • Has increased incontinence issues

Average cost of assisted living and memory care

Cost is an important factor in determining the right community. So, how much does assisted living cost? The answer is, it depends.

A Place for Mom reports that in 2023, an assisted living one-bedroom apartment typically costs $4,803 per month. That said, the price can vary greatly by location, amenities and care needs.

Because memory care communities offer a higher staff-to-resident ratio with specialized care, the cost is typically more than assisted living. According to A Place for Mom, the median cost of memory care in 2023 is $5,800 per month, but the range is vast. They note that memory care apartments can be found anywhere from $2,000 to $12,000 per month.

No matter which community or living option you decide is best for your family, it’s important to understand what’s included in the monthly rate.

Finding the right community

AARP notes that even if your family is confident that assisted living is the right fit right now, it’s still important to understand what continuing care options are available. Finding a place where your parent can receive the care they need as their needs change will offer you peace of mind now and remove undue burden in the future.

Shott agrees – and says that if the community you visit won’t work out, they should help you find one that does.

“You want to work with a provider who doesn’t just want you to move in,” he says. “They should understand that if you can’t move in, their job is to help you find the resources you need.”

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Not sure where to start?

There’s a lot to learn when you become a caregiver, and you may be wondering where to start. Fortunately, many of the experiences you’ll encounter are common, and we've pulled together resources to help you along your journey.

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