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Signs It's Time for Memory Care

| By Dr. Sandra Petersen

Learn more about how to determine if your loved one is going to be better suited in a memory care home, what signs to watch for, tips for the transition, and different care types available.

As we age, it’s natural to experience changes in memory and cognitive function. However, if you are caring for an aging parent or loved one and notice more frequent memory slips or troubling behavior patterns that are affecting their safety, lifestyle or quality of life, it may be time to explore specialized care and living options.

The decision to move a loved one into an assisted living or memory care community  is difficult. But once families realize how beneficial a specialized community lifestyle can be for seniors, they, too, find comfort in the peace of mind that comes with knowing their loved one is safe and receiving the care and support they need.

Recognize the Signs

“Recognizing the signs of dementia is crucial for ensuring the safety and well-being of a loved one,” says Dr. Sandra Petersen, Senior Vice President of Health and Wellness at Pegasus Senior Living. “While every person is different, there are several indicators that it may be time to seek help and begin to consider your options.”

Dr. Petersen advises families to watch for these telltale signs:

Safety red flags – As memory loss progresses, safety is a significant concern. Is your loved one forgetting to turn off appliances, leaving the stove on, forgetting to lock the doors or not eating properly? Have there been recent visits to the emergency room?

Difficulty completing tasks – Does your loved struggle with daily tasks that were once routine like preparing meals, managing medications or neglecting personal hygiene?

Wandering and getting lost – It’s common for those living with dementia to wander or get lost even in the most familiar surroundings.

Changes in personality or mood – Is your loved one more agitated, anxious or withdrawn? Are they uncharacteristically aggressive or paranoid?

Personal care challenges – Neglecting personal care, forgetting to eat or drink, and difficulty managing chronic conditions are all signs your loved one may benefit from the care provided by memory care communities.

Social WithdrawalIsolation and withdrawal from social activities can exacerbate cognitive decline and lead to depression. If you notice your loved one becoming increasingly isolated or disengaged from activities they once enjoyed, it may be time to consider memory care, where they can participate in structured social programs and activities.

When is it Time for a Care Home?

When should someone with dementia go into a care home or memory care community?  It’s a question Dr. Petersen is asked frequently. “Alzheimer’s disease and dementia progress over time. Most family members aren’t equipped to care for someone with advanced forms memory loss,” says Dr. Petersen. “The time to have this discussion and to start exploring options is before symptoms progress. Waiting until there is a crisis can limit your choices. You may not be able to get into the community you want or the one that’s best for your loved one.”

Is it time for assisted living or memory care? Dr. Petersen says it might be if:

  • You are afraid to sleep at night for fear something will happen.
  • Deadlocks or alarms have recently been installed on exterior doors to prevent wandering.
  • There are increasing concerns about falling – especially when there are stairs in the house.
  • You are concerned about their safety when left alone – even if it’s just for a brief time.
  • You feel like you are in 24-hour surveillance mode just to keep your loved one safe.
  • Your mental or physical health is suffering (caregiver burnout)

Getting a Diagnosis

If you’ve seen the telltale signs and are increasingly convinced your loved one may need more care and attention than can be provided at home, contact their doctor – the sooner, the better.

When doctors consider recommending memory care, they typically assess several factors to determine the type and level of care needed – assisted living, memory care or skilled nursing care. Key considerations include:

Diagnosis and disease progression: Doctors will review the patient’s medical history, including the diagnosis of dementia or related conditions, and assess the progression of the disease. They may consider factors such as the type of dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease), stage of the disease, and any associated symptoms or complications.

Cognitive and functional abilities: Assessments may include memory tests, cognitive screenings, evaluations of activities of daily living (ADLs), and assessments of executive function and language skills.

Safety concerns: Doctors consider any safety concerns such as wandering behavior, falls risk, medication management issues, and susceptibility to accidents to determine if a more structured and secure environment, such as a memory care facility, is needed to ensure safety.

Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms: Doctors note any behavioral and psychological symptoms associated with dementia, such as agitation, aggression, hallucinations, and depression because these symptoms may impact the patient’s quality of life and the ability (and safety) of caregivers to manage care at home.

Medical comorbidities: Doctors consider any medical comorbidities or health conditions that may complicate care, such as chronic diseases, mobility issues, sensory impairments, or medication side effects. They assess whether the patient requires specialized medical care like that found in a nursing home or monitoring that is best provided in a memory care setting.

Ultimately, doctors aim to recommend the most appropriate care setting that optimizes quality of life, safety, and well-being. They consider individual preferences, values, and goals of care when making recommendations for memory care.

Caregiver Considerations

Another key factor to consider in determining when dementia patients should go into care is the availability of caregiver support and the caregiver’s physical and emotional ability to meet the needs of the person with dementia. “Caregiver burnout is real,” says Dr. Petersen. “It can have a serious impact on a caregiver’s physical and mental health. Caregivers who are feeling depressed, anxious, overwhelmed or physically exhausted should seek help. Declining health can put both caregiver and their loved one at risk.”

Who Makes the Decision

Ideally, the decision to move to a memory care community is collaborative between family members, the person living with memory loss and doctor(s). Giving your loved one the chance to participate in the process and taking them with you to visit potential communities, can make them feel like they are still in charge of their own lives. When memory loss is too advanced, families typically make the decision.

Senior Options for People with Dementia

Memory Care Communities offer a safe, specially designed environment for residents with a focus on improving quality of life, reducing confusion, and preventing wandering. Memory care communities provide 24-hour care by staff with Alzheimer’s and dementia training and memory-enhancing programming and therapies. Many memory care communities can care for those in the earliest to the latest stages of memory loss.

Assisted living communities help with the activities of daily living (ADLs) like bathing, dressing and medication management with a goal of keeping residents as independent as possible. Assisted living may be suitable for people in the earliest stages of dementia.

Nursing homes provide more comprehensive medical and skilled nursing care. They are best suited for those who have chronic health conditions that require care and management 24/7 in addition to a dementia diagnosis.

Life plan communities offer varying levels of care, ranging from independent living to assisted living to nursing home or skilled care, allowing a person to transition to distinct levels of care if their needs change. Life plan communities are also a good option for couples with different needs.

Family and Caregiver Resources

There are a variety of support resources designed to help families and family caregivers cope:

The Alzheimer’s Association offers a range of resources including support groups, online forums, educational materials, and a 24/7 helpline (1-800-272-3900) staffed by specialists who can provide information and support.

Local Support Groups provide an opportunity to connect with others who are going through similar experiences, share advice, and receive support.

Respite Care Services provide temporary relief for caregivers by offering professional care for their loved ones, allowing caregivers to take a break and attend to their own needs.

Educational Workshops are often hosted by senior living communities. These programs provide information on caregiving strategies, disease management and coping mechanisms.

Online Resources such as blogs, websites like, and social media groups dedicated to dementia offer valuable information, tips and a sense of community for caregivers.

Enjoy Quality Time Instead of Care

The decision to move a loved one living with dementia into care isn’t an easy one to make. But many families find that the specialized care found in memory support communities has life-enhancing benefits for their loved ones – and for them. These communities help relieve caregiver stress, ensure safety and security (peace of mind), offer meaningful activities and socialization opportunities for loved ones and provide educational resources for families.

The around-the-clock care and support allows families to reconnect, share quality time together, and focus on nurturing their relationships without the overwhelming burden of caregiving responsibilities.

Where You Live Matters

Where You Live Matters is powered by the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA), a respected voice in the senior housing industry. ASHA primarily focuses on legislative and regulatory advocacy, research, and educational opportunities and networking for senior living executives, so they can better understand the needs of older adults across the country.

National Institutes of Health and Human Services

By Dr. Sandra Petersen

Pegasus Senior Living

Dr. Sandra Petersen received her most recent years of education from Rush College in Chicago, Illinois, where she obtained a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. She successfully completed three residencies and holds certifications in family practice, geriatric medicine, and psychiatric-mental health. Dr. Petersen was also inducted (2016) as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, an elite group of providers who are recognized by their peers for their impact on the nation’s healthcare. She was a founding member of the Assisted Living Federation of America’s Nurse Action Committee and has been involved in the industry for many years. Dr. Petersen is a professor at The University of Texas at Tyler. Most recently, Dr. Petersen completed a privately-funded study utilizing the PARO robotic pet seal as a non-pharmacological intervention in symptom management in elderly clients with dementia. A journal article reflecting the study’s outcomes was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Dr. Petersen has been in active practice since 1993 and currently has a private house calls practice in the Dallas area that exclusively serves seniors in assisted living, independent living, and memory care settings. She is a popular speaker and consultant both nationally and internationally. Over a decade ago, a stroke left her unable to use the left side of her body and connect with language skills; she even had trouble completing a sentence. “The whole experience gave me not only sympathy, but empathy for those that struggle with cognitive decline,” says Dr. Petersen. We are grateful for her experience and insight that help us improve residents’ physical and mental health every day.

Learn more about Dr. Sandra Petersen