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Understanding the Differences Between Memory Care and Skilled Nursing

Discover the important aspects of memory care and skilled nursing. Seniorly explores the key differences between them and what sets them apart.

By Lydia Bruno · Updated Nov 29, 2022

Memory care vs skilled nursing care: What’s the difference?

If you're caring for an elderly loved one, you may be wondering what the difference is between memory care and skilled nursing. Or you may be wondering if a memory care facility is a nursing home? Both are types of long-term care, but they serve different purposes. Here's a look at the key differences between these two types of care.

What is memory care?

Memory care is a type of long-term care that is designed specifically for older adults with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and other cognitive impairments. About 40% of people aged 65 or older have age-associated memory impairment. In the United States, it is about 16 million people. For people living with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, independence often decreases as symptoms become more severe.

Memory care facilities offer a safe and secure environment, as well as staff members who are trained to deal with the unique needs of people with memory problems. These residents live within secure areas or a special wing of assisted living or skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). The skilled nursing communities are fully supervised by staff members 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

In order to provide the best care options possible in senior living, memory care staff members in these communities receive specialized training on how individuals with dementia or those who are simply suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) differ from others and what their specific needs might be.

What is skilled nursing?

Skilled nursing care is more intensive than memory care. It is typically required when a person needs rehabilitative services or has complex medical needs that can't be met at home or in an assisted living facility. 

SNFs offer 24-hour care, seven days a week, and have staff members who are specially trained to provide medical care. Similar to rehabilitation services, skilled nursing can be chosen for short-term or long-term care.

Skilled nursing provides medical care that assisted living and memory care typically cannot provide, like IV insertion, injections, and other medical care. SNFs also offer the  personalized care typical of assisted living, i.e. help with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing, medication management, and dressing. Skilled nursing communities also offer meals, laundry, housekeeping, social activities, and around-the-clock security.

When should you consider skilled nursing?

The decision to move your loved one to skilled nursing usually comes down to two factors: the severity of their condition and their care needs. If your loved one's condition is serious enough that they need around-the-clock medical supervision, or if they require specialized care that can only be provided by trained professionals, then skilled nursing is likely the best option. Here are five signs that it might be time to transition to skilled nursing.

  • Your loved one requires constant supervision and care that can only be provided by trained professionals such as registered nurses and doctors
  • Your loved one has complex medical needs that require around-the-clock care
  • Your loved one needs specialized care that can only be provided by a skilled nursing facility
  • Your loved one is no longer able to live safely on their own

Ways to pay for skilled nursing

While skilled nursing often comes after you or your loved one has experienced some sort of unexpected medical event, if you realize that an SNF is in the near future, you should start discussing financing options to cover costs. In addition to Medicare, here are some ways that you or your loved one can pay for skilled nursing:

  • Medicare: Medicare Part A will cover short-term skilled nursing care provided in an approved SNF under certain conditions.
  • Medicaid: The Medicaid program will cover skilled nursing care for income-eligible seniors at state-certified and Medicaid-approved skilled nursing facilities.
  • Long-Term Care Insurance: Long-term care insurance (LTC) is insurance for seniors that will cover a variety of expenses associated with long-term stays, such as a hospital visit or at a skilled nursing facility.
  • Veteran Benefits: The VA provides long-term care services that senior veterans can use to cover skilled nursing care. To be eligible for coverage, you must be signed up for VA healthcare, the VA must agree that you need skilled nursing services to help with your ongoing treatment and personal care, and the service is provided in an approved facility near you.
  • Pay out-of-pocket: Often families will pull from their savings or contribute a portion of their income to cover the cost of skilled nursing. If you or your parent have a house that will no longer be lived in (for example, you plan to move into an assisted living community once you no longer need skilled nursing), you might consider selling it, taking out a reverse mortgage, or using the home as a rental property.
  • Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly: PACE is a federal program that helps people meet their health care needs within their community instead of going to a care facility. To be eligible, you must be 55 or older, live in a PACE organization service area, and need “a nursing home-level of care”.

When should you consider memory care?

The decision to move your loved one into a memory care community is not an easy one, but it is important to remember that you are not alone. The staff at memory care facilities are specially trained to deal with the unique needs of those with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. They can provide the level of care and support that your loved one needs, and they can give you the respite you need to care for yourself. The following 12 warning signs are indicators that it might be time to start considering memory care for your loved one.

  • A decline in physical health
  • Changes in behavior
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Incontinence
  • The deterioration of a caregiver
  • Difficulty with daily activities and routines
  • Ignoring personal hygiene
  • Forgetting to take medication
  • Wandering
  • Extreme memory loss
  • Signs of depression
  • Frequent falls

Ways to pay for memory care

Many families struggle with the costs of healthcare and the financial aspect of memory care. Finding a way to pay for memory care services can be challenging. There are four main options to consider when trying to cover the costs of memory care:

  • Medicare: Medicare covers some, but not all, costs of care in a memory care facility. It doesn’t cover any type of long-term care, but it does cover the following: inpatient hospital care, semi-private rooms, meals, general nursing care, medications, hospital supplies, diagnostic testing, 100 days of skilled nursing home care, and hospice care.
  • Medicaid: The majority of people who enroll in Medicaid are unable to afford other forms of health insurance. Medicaid by law can not pay for room and board, but will cover the cost of care for residents. In most memory care facilities, the Medicaid waiver can be used for the cost of room and board.
  • Long-term care insurance: Long-term care insurance can cover different types of long-term care. Long-term care insurance can cover: in-home care, assisted living, respite care, hospice care, nursing home/skilled nursing, Alzheimer’s or dementia care.
  • Out of pocket: Out of pocket payment is also referred to as private pay. This is when the cost of memory care is paid out of pocket by the individual or their family.

Is memory care considered skilled nursing?

Memory care is considered a form of skilled nursing care. The goal of skilled nursing services is to help patients overcome and rehabilitate their specific needs, while acknowledging that some conditions are chronic and require daily care. 

Memory care helps those suffering from Alzheimer’s or Dementia by providing them with specially designed environments that cater specifically to this type of patient's needs.

When to transition from one type of care to the other: assisted living to memory care

It can be a difficult task to know when your loved one needs to move out of assisted living communities and into memory care. There are signs you can look for that will let you know it is time to move your loved one into a memory care facility.

  • They stop socializing with other people
  • A decline in their physical condition
  • They become depressed
  • They get lost easily
  • They start to wander
  • A decline in their ability to do everyday tasks
  • They struggle to manage their lives (i.e. home, money, or bills)

To make the most informed decisions about their move be sure to consult with family members and friends, health care professionals that are familiar with your loved one’s situation, neighbors, or anyone that may interact with them on a daily basis.

Works consulted:

Small, Gary. “What we need to know about age related memory loss,” National Library of Medicine. June 22, 2002.

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written by:
Lydia Bruno

Lydia Bruno

Copywriter for Seniorly, with 5+ years experience in professional caregiving and senior housing
View other articles written by Lydia

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