Memory Care Providers Go Big for Innovation

Memory care has come a long way. From a not-too-distant past when little was known about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to the present day when the most developed nations have committed to wage the war on Alzheimer’s—and win it—by 2025, a lot has changed.

Today, assisted living providers have designed designated memory care “neighborhoods” and have devoted resources and staffing specific to memory care residents. Others have launched standalone communities to provide memory care for those who need it.

While technology, from touch screens to video chat, is largely leading the charge in memory care innovation, providers say the past is as important as the future when it comes to the cutting edge in caring from those suffering from memory impairment.


“In working with people with memory loss, we tend to create successful approaches when we go back in time, not forward,” says Kelly McCarthy corporate director, Memory Care Services for Senior Lifestyle Corp., which offers memory care services in 37 of its communities nationwide. “We maintain a foundation of interaction with memory care, and we want to bring it back just a little bit.”

Advances in technology are allowing assisted living providers to help residents connect with the past, and they are seeing positive outcomes in return.

Memory care innovation


Just a few years ago, much of memory care was rolled into overall care in nursing homes or assisted living communities. Today, there’s more attention given to standalone memory care units with special features spanning both technology and design.

Interior courtyards are being utilized to stimulate residents and provide outdoor access without the requirement of locked doors, which are required by fire code for exterior doors. Communities are designed with a neighborhood format allowing residents to move from one unit to another freely, or to remain closer to home with all amenities readily accessible.

Technology is also driving memory care innovation with new software and devices serving a threefold purpose: connect residents with family and friends, stimulate and engage residents and streamline care processes including clinical services to make time for better care.

Many providers are using touch-screen devices to engage residents and connect them with friends and family via Skype or other video chat platforms where they can spend birthdays with loved ones who live 1,000 miles away.

They’re also using “brain games” accessible on iPads and other mobile devices that can help stimulate residents and engage them.

Internet has become commonplace among memory care providers to support the technology, and it’s being included in all new construction or retrofitted in older communities.

“When we started developing five years ago, most memory care communities were 10-plus years old,” says Shelley Esden, senior vice president of operations for Sonata Senior Living, a Florida-based operator of several assisted living communities offering memory care. “We had the opportunity to introduce wireless call systems, closed-circuit TV, with communications accessible on PDAs and Internet. We use VOIP telephone systems with [Session Initiation Protocol] (SIP) trunks to implement operational savings.”

Sonata also utilizes emergency response technology and monitoring software that allows caregivers to ping a device whenever they are checking on a resident—day or night. Clinical technology is allowing the community to detect warning signs of heart failure up to two weeks in advance—technology previously only used by hospitals.

It sounds high-tech, and it is, but much of the technology is being used to make memory care operations more efficient and more streamlined so there’s more time to focus on what memory care provides say is by far most important: people.

“We want not only to be accessible but enticing,” Esden says. “It’s not just about care. Tech is most successful when you don’t know it’s there. It allows our team to spend more time engaging residents.”

Back to the future

While some innovation revolves around brand new technology, providers are also seeing success with new takes on old practices. Take, for example, a program at Senior Lifestyle Corp. that revolves around music to stimulate memory care residents and connect them with the past.

“We’re identifying specific music types residents were familiar and connected with. Knowing what kind of music a person listened to, whether on iPods or CD players, is a wonderful way to be able to reach each person,” McCarthy says. The music is used in a segmented way throughout the day and has proven effective for residents.

“After the headset is taken off, the individual is alert and excited,” she says.

Communities have also seen success in non-technology-based innovations such as a focus on lifelong learning and a recent program at Senior Lifestyle Corp. coined “Walk With Me,” which identifies frontline care staff as being extremely important and valuable, and garnered an ALFA Best of the Best Award in 2013.

The time saved by memory care innovations is being realized on the caregiver front from operations to clinical interactions.

“The opportunities should positively contribute to longevity and the ability to prevent rehospitalization and help residents stay healthier longer,” Esden says. “We use the technology to allow our staff to do their jobs better.”

Smart Staffing: 5 Tips to Hiring for Memory Care

  • Identify employee engagement. If the employee isn’t engaged in the interview, chances are, he or she is applying for the wrong position. Caregivers will likely bring that same level of engagement into their resident interactions.
  • Where’s the passion? “Are you open minded? Do you feel valued? Are you empowered to be a team player?” McCarthy says these questions should be asked of any prospective memory care staff.
  • Find love for learning. An applicant may have 35 years of experience, but is the person excited to learn more along with the resident he or she will be caring for?
  • Engagement outweighs experience. Even if an applicant has just received his or her certification and lacks experience, the candidate may be a good one if he or she is engaged, positive and looking to learn more, McCarthy says.
  • Role play. It’s a great way to see how a caregiver will respond and react to someone with memory impairment.

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

This article is sponsored by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) as part of its efforts to advance excellence and explore topics impacting the future of senior living. For more information about ALFA, visit

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