By Elisa Shoenberger

Elisa Shoenberger is a freelance journalist in Chicago. She has written for the Boston Globe, US News and World Report, and others.


With Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia on the rise, dedicated memory care communities and memory care units are stepping up to meet people’s unique needs.

When an individual’s ability to communicate diminishes — a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia — specially trained staff prioritize engaging them and keeping them safe.Memory care communities differ from assisted living communities or skilled nursing facilities in that they offer an individualized approach with trained staff members who know how to engage and assist people with memory loss or cognitive impairment.

Here are four ways that memory care communities provide specialized care.

Seniors engaged in games, arts and crafts, and gardening. They are part of a memory care community at the Admiral at the Lake.
Photos courtesy of the Admiral at the Lake

 1.  Programming

Specialized activities that are geared toward people with memory loss engage residents and foster a sense of community, says Kim Kohler, life enrichment coordinator at The Admiral at the Lake, a senior living community in Chicago that offers life care, or a continuum of care that includes memory support.

With memory loss, people may begin to lose “the ability to initiate connection with others and so [they] can become more isolated,” Kohler says. In memory care communities, staff members provide specific programming that fulfills the physical, cognitive, spiritual, emotional, and social needs of the residents, she says. 

Programming includes experiences that provide opportunities for self-expression. Art and music therapy, as well as movement classes, can be particularly helpful for people who have lost the ability to speak but are still able to sing all the words to Johnny Cash songs, for instance. 

Staff members strive to make activities accessible by breaking tasks into manageable steps. For example, a project such as making holiday gift bags will be done in small
parts over a series of days or weeks. Each participant is able to make a contribution in their own way and feel a sense of accomplishment.

 2.  Activities of daily living

Memory care staff, such as nurses and certified nursing assistants, typically assist with activities of daily living, including helping with mealtime, medicine, and personal care. The goal: to provide “as much independence and dignity as possible with each task,” Kohler says.

Staff members guide residents, helping them continue to do as much as they can. For example, caregivers may prompt a person to pick up a spoon or toothbrush and encourage them to continue the task on their own. They may even mime brushing or eating to offer a visual reminder.  

If a person with cognitive impairment has trouble managing silverware, the kitchen staff often will serve them finger food so they’ll have an easier time eating, says Jennifer Pasternak, executive director of Northbrook Inn, a Koelsch Communities memory care residence in Northbrook. Under the Puree with Purpose program, chefs in Koelsch’s four Chicagoland memory care communities shape blended foods into forms that are more appealing and easier to eat for people in advanced states of dementia.

 3.  Staff

Memory care communities have lower staff-to-resident ratios than assisted living communities. Pasternak estimates that standard ratios for assisted living are one staff member for every 10 to 16 residents, while memory care programs are much lower at one staff member to every five or eight residents. 

Some communities, such as The Admiral at the Lake and Northbrook Inn, have a certified licensed nurse on staff in the memory care area 24 hours a day. On top of that, Illinois requires that care community staff members who have direct access to people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia undergo mandatory dementia training.  

What to Look for in  Memory Care sidebar

 4.  Safety

Most memory care communities are designed with safety in mind. For instance, some people with memory loss may wander off premises, which may put them at risk for a fall or for getting lost.

Depending on the facility, a wing, floor, or whole building may be designed so that residents cannot easily leave the grounds unsupervised. Or in the case of a high-rise building, such as The Admiral at the Lake, some residents wear wristbands that trigger the elevator to lock with the doors open to prevent them from leaving unescorted, if staff determines that such a precaution is necessary. 

With programming, personal care, staff, and safety in mind, memory care communities keep people with dementia engaged and cared for — benefiting the individuals and reassuring their family members.

Ultimately, Kohler says, memory care gives people with cognitive impairment the “opportunity to be engaged, fulfilled, and inspired to continue to live a meaningful life.” 

Chicago Caregiving Magazine Article