This is the eighth in a series of articles intended to demystify the experience of living in a retirement community.
Memory care facilities are intended for people who have Alzheimer's or another form of dementia or cognitive impairment, and who are at risk because they tend to wander away from their living quarters without having the ability to find their way back or to ask for help.
These facilities typically have locked doors to help ensure that residents remain in the unit unless they are escorted out. People with dementia who do not wander may reside in other types of units -- such as standard assisted living units or nursing facilities -- if their needs can be met there.
Of the four retirement communities in the Prescott, Arizona area visited for this series, Good Samaritan in Prescott Valley and Granite Gate in Prescott offer memory care facilities. Las Fuentes and Alta Vista do not.
Memory care at Granite Gate takes place in an assisted living unit. Residents live in small appealing apartments that offer nearly 400 square feet of space and contain several large closets.
Rena Phillips, executive director of Granite Gate, commented, "I lived in one of these apartments when I first came here, before I found another place to stay."
Outside each apartment is a large clear acrylic box mounted on the wall at eye level. Each contains a tastefully arranged collection of pictures, text, and mementos that help residents both remember who they are and quickly tell which room is theirs.
The Good Samaritan memory care unit, which it calls its Special Care Unit, is licensed as a nursing/skilled nursing facility. Resident rooms are typical of rooms in their other nursing/skilled nursing units, rather than apartments.
The trade-off is that Good Samaritan is able to offer a broader range of services than Granite Gate is licensed to provide.
Memory care units are quite pleasant at both Good Samaritan (16 residents) and Granite Gate (30 residents). An air of calm and quiet pervades both.
I have seen other skilled nursing facilities for people with dementia where one is constantly jarred by shouts and moans of residents, by alarms going off, and by loud instructions from staff members to residents who are unsteady on their feet, telling them to sit down when they try to stand up unaided.
I did not see or hear a single instance of any of those disruptions in either the Granite Gate or Good Samaritan memory care units.
The common areas in both facilities have ample space and lots of natural light. Public space at Good Samaritan feels cozy and homelike; Granite Gate offers a larger open area with soaring ceilings.
At both facilities I visited, most of the residents were out of their rooms and seated in the common areas. They were cheerfully engaged in various activities, with staff working to assist them. At both sites, staff members have been specially trained to work with people with dementia.
Under rules for both assisted living and nursing/skilled nursing, facilities are required to offer an extensive program of daily activities that meet the needs of their residents. These rules apply just as much to units for people with dementia as they do to other units, and both sites appear to take this requirement seriously.
Granite Gate's memory care unit runs under a program called Bridge to Rediscovery. It draws from Montessori principles. You may be familiar with Montessori as a teaching method used with children to help them be and feel successful. Some researchers have concluded that a similar approach can help people with dementia.
Good Samaritan has an activities staff in its memory care unit that works to create a wide variety of activities and outings. Contrary to popular belief, individuals in a memory care unit can leave the facility to enjoy experiences in the broader community, accompanied by aides who keep them safe.
Granite Gate runs a monthly support group for family members of its residents. This service can help people who are understandably troubled that parents or other relatives -- whom they remember as intelligent, passionate, driven, and successful -- no longer remember basic facts about their lives and their families.