The Alzheimer’s Society in Canada reports that in 2011, 747,000 Canadians were living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias - that's 14.9 per cent of Canadians 65 and older. By 2031, if nothing changes in Canada, this figure will increase to 1.4 million.
We typically associate old age with the fragility of the physical body, but what happens when the mind ages in a way that disrupts a person’s personality or memories? The heartbreaking effects of Alzheimer’s or dementia can be challenging for both the individual and their respective caregivers. Eventually, families have little choice but to adapt to their loved one’s failing condition and they must try to find the best solutions for them.
One option is to choose a retirement home or senior community that specializes in “memory care”. Alzheimer’s and dementia are two of the common memory-loss conditions included under the umbrella of memory care. This specialized care spans a spectrum of services depending upon the severity of symptoms exhibited by an individual. Memory care goes beyond what is traditionally offered in an autonomous or assisted living setting.
Community for Alzheimer or Dementia
In recognition of the unique care challenges that Alzheimer’s and dementia pose, communities may only provide memory care, or in the cases of a continuing care community, have a neighborhood solely for residents requiring memory care. Often these communities incorporate design elements that research has shown to lower stress in individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia. These elements include increased natural lighting, memory boxes outside the room and a circular neighborhood design that allows for safe wandering. Because an estimated six in 10 people with Alzheimer’s will wander, communities are designed to minimize the risk of leaving or elopement, whether employing security alarms on doors or performing more frequent safety checks.
Amenities in a Memory Care Community
The amenities found at a memory care community may not be as glamorous as those found in an independent living or assisted living community. This is done by design rather than oversight. Research has shown that seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia can become easily stressed and disoriented, thereby memory care communities are designed to create a relaxing atmosphere and environment.
Security in Memory Care Communities
Communities may have a secured courtyard that allows residents the opportunity to walk outside or to do activities such as gardening without the risk of leaving. Gathering places, such as a TV lounge or library, are also common features. Hallways are likely brightly coloured, in a variety of colours, to assist residents in finding their way through colour-coding.
Apartment suites are typically available in private or companion options, with some communities offering a one-bedroom apartment floor plan. These suites won’t have the kitchenettes found in assisted living apartments and the amenities are minimal—again, in the effort to reduce stress. To assist in helping the individual to find their way, many communities will place a memory box filled with mementos from the resident’s life outside each apartment to help trigger their memory.
Activities are specially designed around a resident’s past interests so they may reconnect with their memories. Art classes, music and games are usually offered, along with exercise classes. Some communities may also provide escorted outings. At a memory care community, staff typically handle all the responsibilities of life—from housekeeping and laundry to meal preparation and transportation. Assistance with activities of daily living is also a standard service offering.
It is also important to do your homework and to visit the memory care facility to see if it is a good fit for your loved one. Touring the facility at different times of the day is recommended, as this way you can view residents and staff throughout the day, rather than just at lunch or during activities. Also, make sure to use all of your senses to study the community. If you smell urine or see the building is in need of repair, it could be a red flag.
Certifications and Accreditations
Be sure to ask whether the staff are certified or have received training in memory care because this ensures that your loved one will be cared for by staff who understands how Alzheimer’s or dementia affects the mind and body. In addition, ask if the community has a specialized memory care program. Because of the unique caring challenges that Alzheimer’s and dementia pose, some communities have developed unique memory care programming that guides how residents are cared for to ensure every aspect of their lives is properly handled—from physical well-being to being nurtured spiritually.
Make sure your loved one is thoroughly assessed before looking into Alzheimer's care units so you know exactly what kind of care your loved one needs now and what level of care they will most likely require in the future. Ensure that your loved one isn't forced to move out of a community by asking questions as to what kind of care is available and under what circumstances a person would be asked to leave the community.
Once you have selected a community, try to take measures for a smooth transition. One of these steps could be as simple as having your loved one’s room already decorated with items or belongings that are familiar to them. This will also help with the transition and reduce the stress of moving. Some communities may also assist in escorting your loved one to the community.
Do not be afraid to seek or ask for professional services from advisors specializing in senior care. They can offer added insight and experience during this difficult transition period.
Matt Del Vecchio is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging (CPCA). He is the founder and president of Lianas - a company specializing in retirement residence search and senior transition support.