The World of Memory Care

Innovative care approaches for people with dementia

Verified symbol star with checkmark

Fact checked by Shannon Sparks

As our population ages, the demand for specialized memory care is on the rise. About 2 in 3 Americans have some level of cognitive impairment by age 70. Women and men have a 37% and 24% risk respectively of dementia, and memory care clinics have emerged as vital resources.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of individuals requiring memory care services,” says Joyce Mahoney, regional vice president of memory care and therapeutic programming at Belmont Village Senior Living, which operates 35 locations across the country and one in Mexico City.

“As the population ages, the demand for these services continues to grow, and we’re committed to meeting that demand.”

Each facility incorporates a range of activities for its residents throughout the day. Classes include physical and mental workouts, Mahoney says — from movement and meditation to trivia and spelling bees, education and social events.

And Belmont Village isn’t alone. Healthcare facilities around the world are responding, changing how dementia is managed and treated. These novel approaches focus on person-centered care and promoting independence.

Creative solutions abroad

In Japan, where the older population is among the highest in the world, pioneering caregivers are using robotics to enhance the lives of people with dementia. Humanoid robots equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) are dispatched to provide companionship, assistance with daily tasks, and even cognitive stimulation through interactive games and activities. These robotic companions alleviate loneliness and help to mitigate the burden on caregivers.

Robotic pets, like Paro, help enhance the quality of life for those in memory care. Although Paro debuted in 2003, the pet has significantly advanced — along with many friends — with the help of AI. The pets appear to have a calming effect, reducing anxiety and agitation while promoting a sense of comfort and well-being.

Meanwhile, in countries like the Netherlands, Australia, and Germany, a concept known as dementia villages has gained traction as a progressive model for dementia care. These purpose-built communities — an estimated seven total worldwide — recreate a homelike environment, complete with shops, cafes, and gardens. Through familiar and supportive surroundings, dementia villages promote autonomy and dignity for affected individuals while also fostering a sense of community and social connection.

One such village, The Hogeweyk, located in the town of Weesp, outside Amsterdam, appears to be a typical Dutch neighborhood, complete with quaint houses, bustling streets, and charming storefronts. However, a closer look reveals that this village is entirely dedicated to caring for individuals with dementia.

Every aspect of life in Hogeweyk is geared to meet the specialized needs of its residents. From the design of the houses to the layout of the streets, details large and small contribute to a safe and supportive environment for individuals with dementia. Residents live in small group homes, each designed to resemble a familiar setting, such as a traditional Dutch household or a cozy apartment. Within the village, residents are free to roam and explore, with access to amenities such as cafes, shops, and gardens. Caregivers help when needed, but otherwise stay in the background, ensuring that residents can live as independently as possible.

Rather than segregating individuals with dementia from the rest of society, these villages aim to integrate them into a community where they can continue to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. Residents are encouraged to participate in daily activities, such as cooking, gardening, and socializing, helping to maintain their cognitive abilities and sense of identity.

Mental stimulation is crucial

Keeping the brain stimulated is at the heart of many approaches to memory care. An innovative program called Music & Memory, available at facilities across the U.S., uses personalized playlists tailored to the individual’s musical preferences. This program taps into the power of music to evoke memories, reduce agitation, and improve mood. Caregivers report significant improvements in the well-being of dementia patients as they reconnect with cherished songs and experiences from their past.

Many memory care communities also offer immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences to enhance therapeutic interventions for dementia patients. VR technology lets individuals explore familiar environments, revisit childhood memories, or embark on virtual travel adventures, providing a multisensory experience that stimulates cognition and promotes relaxation.

Mahoney says that by focusing on personalized, holistic interventions that address individual needs, caregivers can enhance the quality of life for people in memory care. “We follow the latest research in dementia care to ensure that our programs are evidence-based and effective in maintaining cognitive function longer and minimizing behavioral symptoms,” she says.

As the aging population continues to increase, the demand for memory care services will rise. Novel approaches continue to gain momentum worldwide, offering hope for millions of individuals and families.

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2024 print issue