It is common thinking that way more than 50% of all senior living residents (not living in specific memory care units) have at least some mild dementia.

It is common thinking in the industry that way more than 50% of all senior living residents (not living in specific memory care units) have at least some mild dementia. I did a little bit of knocking around the internet to see if I could find any data to support that premise and came up with a couple of data points:

  • A single study done by Johns Hopkins University around 2003, 2004, that looked at 198 volunteers in 22 Baltimore area assisted living communities, claims two thirds of all assisted living residents had some form of dementia.
  • In 2009 a group of senior living trade associations joined together to publish a report titled 2009 Overview of Assisted Living (The link will open a pdf). That reports suggests a more believable rate of 1/3 of all residents having some form of dementia. This ratio includes residents in dementia specific units.

I Am Not So Sure

So, maybe I have it wrong because I am not in an assisted living community every day interacting with residents but here is what I am thinking. 

In a very real sense, once a senior moves into assisted living it is kind of all-over for them. They will exit in just one of 4 ways:

  • They will die in the assisted living facility
  • They will be transferred to an acute hospital where they will die
  • They will end up spending their final days before death in a skilled nursing facility
  • Very occasionally they may go back home to die

And if that is not depressing enough, think about this; each day looks more or less the same. Sure the activities change a bit from day to day, but not all that much. Unless residents are regular churchgoers, even the weekends don’t look much different than the weekdays. There are really no decisions of any importance left to make; there is no one left to help or serve. There is no work left to be done ever!

My big concern is that when everything looks the same everyday instead of creating an ideal environment we create a mindless environment, which could very well manifest as dementia or, at the very least, cognitive decline. Think about that Saturday or Sunday morning where you woke but felt like you could just sleep all day and with nothing you specifically  had to do, you rolled over and went back to sleep. The next thing you know, it is late morning and you drag yourself out of bed thinking you should really be rested, but instead you find yourself still groggy and disoriented (not talking about a time you had way too much to drink the night before.)

Changing It Up

I find myself wondering if the perceived, even diagnosed, rates of not just dementia, but depression and non-specific cognitive decline would radically decrease if we could somehow create a way living looked a lot more like living at home. Maybe they would still get up and clean their own home (with some help), do their own laundry, and actually prepare meals together.   

This is really all about treating our seniors as fully functioning, capable adults who also happen to need some assistance with physically challenging aspects of day-to-day life. It would require us to see our residents through radically different eyes.

Do I have this wrong?