When Should You Consider Memory Care for a Parent?

My mother’s memory is getting worse. Now what?

When is Memory Care Necessary

If your mom were to fall and break a hip, chances are your family would start making a plan for transitioning her from the hospital to a care setting. You know what progress she needs to make in order to be safe to go back home again, and you have researched alternatives in case she needs more support than living at home can offer. But when changes to a parent’s health are related to memory loss and aren’t physical, many families don’t have the same proactive approach. Why? Because it’s not quite as simple as an obvious physical decline.

Age-related memory loss from diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or dementia don’t always have the immediate impact that a broken bone or other obvious physical changes do.

The Progression of Memory Loss (and Caregiver Guilt)

That’s because memory loss doesn’t always cause an immediate impact. Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are progressive diseases, which means the signs and symptoms that your loved one needs specialist dementia care unfold over time.

Early-stage forgetfulness, such as misplacing keys or forgetting to bathe, can evolve into more obvious signs, such as getting lost in a place your parent frequents like the grocery store, forgetting to pay bills, or difficulty communicating because they can’t seem to find the right word to finish their sentence. For some people, this progression happens rapidly. For others, it takes years to reach an advanced stage.

No wonder it’s so hard for families to recognize when their loved one might benefit from memory care. Plus, many families aren’t aware of the benefits of a memory care setting compared to caring for a parent in their home or bringing home care assistance to a parent’s home. When you add in conflicting feelings of guilt and the desire to do what is best, it can be even harder to think about finding a memory care setting for a parent.

So how do you reconcile the desire to care for your loved one yourself with the fear that their needs could soon be beyond what you can safely handle?

Brooke Capps, Resident Care Coordinator at Highgate at Wenatchee, has helped many families through this struggle.

“Yes, it is our responsibility to take care of our parents,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to be the sole caregiver. It’s OK to let trained professionals take care of your parent. And by allowing us to take care of your family, it allows you to focus on your parent-child relationship. When you take on the caregiver role, the lines can get blurred and many children feel like they lose that relationship.”

Experts agree that moving someone with dementia into memory care sooner rather than later has many benefits: peace of mind for the family, an environment that stimulates and encourages residents to engage, and activities tailored to whatever stage of memory loss your parent is in, to name a few.

When Is the Right Time for Memory Care?

Capps says there are two big things to ask yourself when trying to determine if your loved one needs dementia care: “First, if they’re walking out the front door, can they be trusted to come back safely? And second, are they safe behind closed doors?”

1. Wandering

Does your mom take an unusually long time to complete a routine walk or drive? Or does your dad have difficulty finding the bathroom or other familiar places?

Memory loss can cause confusion and disorientation, and about 60 percent of people with memory loss wander. A loved one can easily get out of the house without their caregiver realizing it, and this can be a life-threatening situation. If your loved one is continually putting their physical safety at risk, it’s time to consider memory care.

2. Safety Concerns

Has your dad microwaved a cup of coffee and left the spoon in the cup? Has your mom left the stove on after warming up a pot of soup? Or have you noticed a loss in habitual knowledge of where the staircase ends, leading to concerns of an eventual? If you worry about your loved one’s safety, it may be time to consider memory care.

Don’t forget to take into consideration your own safety. For example, a petite 60-year-old woman could easily get hurt trying to get her 180-pound father to the bathroom two or three times each night.

3. Health Decline

As memory loss progresses, it becomes harder to drive a car, make grocery lists, prepare food, remember daily medications, and even remember to eat. Physical signs that memory loss is taking an unnecessary toll include:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Lack of food in the fridge or cabinets
  • Evidence of medication not taken (or overtaken)
  • Neglected personal hygiene
  • Missed appointments

4. Changes in Mood and Behavior

Some people with memory loss may start acting in dramatically different ways. Your very independent father may suddenly be apprehensive about driving. Your social butterfly of a mom might decline social invitations and become withdrawn. Your meticulously dressed spouse may suddenly forget daily hygiene or how to do basic tasks like styling their hair.

Verbal and physical aggression and agitation can also occur. This is perhaps one of the hardest changes for families to cope with. Capps shares a story about a woman with memory loss who was living at home with the help of home care aides. “But she was far enough advanced that she didn’t recognize them,” Capps says. “So when they’d arrive for their shift, she kept kicking them out. She’d call 911 because there were ‘strangers’ in her house.”

Family members may feel resentful, angry or frustrated as they cope with these disruptive outbursts. If your loved one is experiencing severe changes in mood or personality, it’s time to consider memory care.

5. Caregiver Burnout

Caring for a loved one with memory loss can be emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. Because dementia affects the brain, it breaks down cognitive function, often altering personality in a way that can be painful to watch. Providing such care is a remarkable act of compassion. It can also be deeply frustrating when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Be honest with yourself about how much of your time and energy are already being consumed by family and work obligations. It’s OK to admit when you’re stretched too thin. Piling on responsibilities and going past your breaking point helps no one.

“We’ve seen family caregivers experience peace of mind once their loved one starts receiving memory care,” says LaTresh Walker, Healthcare Director of Highgate at Temecula. “They are able to be the child or spouse again and rest easy knowing that their loved one is getting the best care possible.”

What If Mom Has Dementia But Dad Doesn’t?

If one of your parents is struggling with memory loss and the other doesn’t, the effects on the well spouse are dramatic. The responsibility can take an enormous emotional and physical toll, especially when added to the psychological distress of watching a loved one deteriorate. This can result in distress, anxiety, illness, or depression.

Fortunately, there are some memory care communities that cater to couples. Vanessa Rauser, Assistant Executive Director at Highgate at Bozeman, recalls one man who was caring for his wife, who has dementia, at home. He used to get frustrated, and eventually, he burned out providing full-time care at home. Now, they both live at Highgate at Bozeman — he in the assisted living community and she in the memory care community.

Now, the husband looks better and healthier because he’s no longer trying to provide all the care. And when he visits his wife in memory care, instead of being frustrated, he just gets to sit with her and enjoy that time with her.

When Is the Right Time to Move from Assisted Living to Memory Care?

If your loved one is already in an assisted living environment and their memory loss is progressing, it may be time to shift from assisted living to memory care. At the best assisted living communities, it will be your loved one’s care partners who pick up on the signs that it’s time to make the transition from assisted living to memory care.

“We have a preferred care partner system, which means the care partners work with the same residents every day,” Capps says. “They’ll come to me and say something like, ‘Whenever we’ve gone into Norma’s room, she’s in the same clothes’ or ‘We had to take her back to her room after breakfast because she couldn’t remember how to get there on her own.’”

Although the team members might be the first to notice, here are some other signs it might be time to make the transition:

  • If your loved one shuffles over to the front desk of their assisted living community and asks the attendant where their room is multiple times a day.
  • If you notice your loved one withdrawing to their room, abandoning formerly close friendships, and being unwilling to participate in group activities, it could be a sign that they would benefit from moving to a memory care unit.


Ultimately, there is no downside to placing a loved one in a memory care community too soon.

However, there are many drawbacks to waiting too long. Over time, as dementia progresses, it changes your relationship with your loved one, and you’ll spend more time managing their care than anything else. Moving to memory care can help you reverse that relationship so that you get to spend time with your loved one doing the things you love to do together while someone else handles the professional care.

For more information about memory care, including how to find a quality community and questions to ask when touring, download our Guide to Memory Care and Dementia Communities.

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