Resource Center / Health and Lifestyle / Memory Care vs. Skilled Nursing Home: What’s the Difference?

Memory Care vs. Skilled Nursing Home: What’s the Difference?

Struggling to understand the different options for senior living? Seniorly takes a deep dive into two types of senior living solutions that offer high-acuity care for older adults.

By Marlena del Hierro Updated on Jun 29, 2023
Reviewed by Nipun Chopra · Reviewed on Dec 5, 2022

Memory care nursing homes: decoding the jargon

If you're caring for an elderly loved one, you may be wondering what the difference is between memory care and skilled nursing homes. Or, you may be wondering if a memory care facility is a nursing home. Or is it the other way around?

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 for older adults.

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. According to a recent study by Seniorly, dementia and related illnesses are expected to nearly double by 2060. And as Alzheimer's disease - which makes up between 60-80% of dementia cases - is on the rise, so too will be the demand for quality memory care.

For people living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, independence often decreases as symptoms become more severe. Memory care facilities offer a safe and secure environment for their patients and are staffed with professionals 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). It's important to note that 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 communities have staff members who 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 for daily living.

What is skilled nursing?

Nursing homes, also known as skilled nursing facilities, provide care that is more intensive than the memory care units. 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.

What kind of care does a skilled nursing home provide?

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, such help with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing, medication management, and dressing.

Moreover, skilled nursing communities also provide meals, laundry, housekeeping, social activities, physical therapy, and around-the-clock security.

When should you consider moving to a nursing home?

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 medical professionals there, 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
  • Your loved one is forgetting to take their medication and medication management is a growing need

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 if it is provided in an approved SNF under certain conditions.
  • Medicaid: The Medicaid program will cover skilled nursing services 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 a skilled nursing facility.
  • Veteran benefits: The Veterans Affairs (VA) provides long-term care services that senior veterans can use to cover skilled nursing support. To be eligible for coverage, you must be signed up for VA healthcare. In addition, the VA must agree that you need skilled nursing services to help with your ongoing treatment and personal care. 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, you might consider selling it, taking out a reverse mortgage, or using the home as a rental property. One example of this would be planning to move into an assisted living community once you no longer need skilled nursing, therefore you would no longer need the house.
  • Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly: PACE is a federal program that helps people meet their healthcare 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 a memory care facility?

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. Furthermore, they can provide the level of care and support that your loved one needs. Ultimately, this offers 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 facilities

Many dementia patients 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. However, it does cover assistance such as the following:
  • Medicaid: The majority of people who enroll in Medicaid are unable to afford other forms of health insurance. By law, Medicaid 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, and 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 communities often employ skilled nursing to deliver care to residents. 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 placing them in a specially designed environment such as a memory care unit, they'll receive individualized care specifically catered to this type of patient's needs.

When to transition from assisted living to memory care communities

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

  • Take a look at some of the most common signs to be aware of:
  • 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.

Ultimately, this will provide outside, unbiased, and valuable insight into whether or not your loved one is ready to transition into a new assisted living space.

Choosing a memory care or skilled nursing facility

All in all, it's essential to understand the difference between memory care and skilled nursing care in order to make informed decisions about options for those we hold dear. While both types of care provide essential support and assistance, they cater to different needs.

Remember that when deciding the most appropriate level of care, it's key to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Above all, take into consideration your loved one's specific needs, preferences, and medical requirements to ensure their comfort, dignity, and security.

Every person is deserving of personalized care that embraces compassion. By deepening our understanding of memory care and skilled nursing care, we can guarantee our loved ones receive the specialized support they need to lead a comfortable and fulfilling life.

See below for more resources to support your decision 

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written by:
Marlena del Hierro

Marlena del Hierro is Vice President of Partnerships and Seniorly’s Lead Gerontologist. Marlena earned her Master of Arts degree in Gerontology from San Francisco State University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Development from California State University. She also serves in an advisory capacity for Jukebox Health. As Seniorly’s first employee, Marlena is a vocal advocate for evolving the aging paradigm, and is a frequent contributor to public discussions about aging. She has served as a resource for media outlets like WGBH, FOX News, CNBC and the Today Show.

To learn more about Seniorly's editorial guidelines, click here.

View other articles written by Marlena

Reviewed by:
Nipun Chopra

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