Jan McIntyre’s mother-in-law Ersilia has Alzheimer’s disease. One frosty February day, Ersilia descended from her cozy condo unit into the snowy streets below. It was her first attempt at wandering.
Like an icy wind blast, a bitter realization hit McIntyre then and there. The whole family knew it: It was time for memory care.
“It was minus 21 degrees in Toronto, and she walked outside, and it was so terrible out she walked right back inside.” The close call got McIntyre, her husband, and his two sisters worried. “What happens in the spring when it’s nice weather out?”
The family started searching for a retirement community offering memory care. Their decision was well timed, said McIntyre in hindsight. “We got her transitioned into the retirement home before anything significantly bad happened. But you can never judge what is the best time because you don’t know how fast they decline.”
Rene Vanderhaeghe, Business Development Manager at Chartwell Retirement Residences, said the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is unpredictable. He said families often wait too long to seek care services. “No adult child sees their parent—or even a spouse doesn’t see their loved one—at this spot that they need that level of care or assistance.”
“Mom’s not ready yet,” you may feel if your family’s in the same boat as McIntyre’s was. But hesitation is costly, both physically and psychologically. Studies show that, every week, caregivers of older people with dementia put in 9 more hours of care than caregivers of those without dementia. These caregivers also show more symptoms of distress, such as anger or depression.
If you feel burned out and anxious about your loved one’s well-being, you may wonder, “When is it time for memory care?” Here are 4 warning signs to watch for.
1. They Struggle to Care for Themselves
After her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, McIntyre’s mother-in-law Ersilia lived independently for a while. But as the disease advanced, Ersilia became increasingly forgetful to the point that “she didn’t really remember how to cook,” recalled McIntyre.
“Our biggest concern started becoming, she couldn’t feed herself.” So, the family secured a home care worker to prepare lunches, while McIntyre and her sisters-in-law took turns cooking Ersilia’s dinners.
Now a resident of the Memory Living Neighbourhood at the Chartwell Scarlett Heights Retirement Residence in Etobicoke, Ontario, Ersilia dines with fellow residents. She also can access personal care and support services directly from the community.
2. They’re Isolated and Lonely
“I’m always by myself,” Ersilia sometimes complained before her move. Her illness made it hard to remember her daily mealtime visitors.
Memory care “has benefitted Ersilia’s mental health overall, just being with other people and having a lot more activities planned during the day,” said McIntyre. “She now feels more purposeful.” McIntyre praised the community’s small-group environment, saying, “That’s how she has become friends with the other people.”
In a memory living community, your loved one benefits from round-the-clock person-centred care. Specially trained staff get to know each resident individually and provide activities (e.g., gardening, pet therapy) tailored to a person’s interests.
3. You Worry About Their Safety
Before Ersilia tried to wander, “there were several times she wanted to go down [from her sixth-floor unit], but she didn’t because it would be cold outside,” said McIntyre.
Safety was a serious concern. “That was the biggest fear: you don’t want to have something that will impact her security or [cause her to] leave the stove on, or you don’t want to be reacting after a situation.”
In Chartwell’s memory living community, Ersilia benefits from a secure environment on a dedicated floor, with 24-hour supervision. “You need an elevator code to get off that floor, so it’s much safer,” said McIntyre. “She can’t just go off on her own,” she said, adding that Ersilia is free to go outside or leave the grounds when accompanied by staff or family.
4. Caregiving Has Become Too Hard to Manage
“I think the caregiver is the voice that’s sometimes unheard,” said Vanderhaeghe of Chartwell. “You may be so busy looking after your parent or spouse with Alzheimer’s that you don’t realize how exhausted you are, or you forget to attend to your own needs.”
Before her mother-in-law moved into memory care, McIntyre did her banking and grocery shopping, took her to appointments, and guided her toward getting a will and powers of attorney. “I always used to say that Ersilia was my part-time job because I would have to be over there almost every day.”
For McIntyre’s husband and his sisters, the emotional impact of their mother’s illness was palpable. On top of grief and anxiety, “there was a lot of denial,” said McIntyre. The cognitive decline was obvious, yet it was difficult “recognizing that’s how it was, recognizing the inevitable.”
“They felt like they were losing their mother to this illness because she still remembers them, but sometimes she thinks her daughter is her sister, and quite often she thinks my husband is her brother,” said McIntyre. “That caused a lot of feelings of loss for my husband.”
Though memory living can’t erase the anguish, it lets you offload the burden of daily care and enjoy more quality time with your loved one. McIntyre said her family now worries less about Ersilia. For example, whenever “she’s in a bad state or she phones and she’s upset about something, we can ask [the community’s personal support staff] to go in and check on her.” Before, McIntyre or her husband needed to go over to Ersilia’s.
Despite bumps along the way—including an emotional outburst shortly after her move-in—Ersilia now feels at ease in her new environment. “It’s definitely benefited her,” said McIntyre, who recognizes the importance of seeking memory care before it’s too late.
Have you been wondering whether it’s time for memory care?