Placing a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in a long-term care setting is often stressful and worrisome, and it can be even more so if a decision must be made about placement in a specialized memory care unit.

Specialized care units should have a clear mission and activity programming that is structured to fit the needs of each affected person. Many states have laws that require the long-term care setting to outline the specific programs offered in order to be identified as a special care unit.

In a 2018 study in McKnight’s Long Term Care News, Harvard Medical School researchers found that admission into a specialized care unit brought measurable reductions in the inappropriate use of antipsychotic medications, physical restraints, pressure ulcers, feeding tubes and hospitalizations. The study reported that long-term care settings with a specialized care unit provide better quality of care, as measured by several validated quality indicators.

Determining if your loved one needs or can benefit from a SCU depends on that secured unit and the services provided.

Programming, staffing and services vary, so it can be helpful to spend time at the long-term care setting, ask questions and get a feel for the culture and care there. Question the facility’s philosophy of care and speak with others who live there or have had loved ones live there to get an understanding of the staff and care provided.

Some caregivers opt for the SCU because their loved one persistently wanders. Though wandering does not always necessitate the need for placement in such a unit, the SCU does offer a safe and secure environment and can give the affected person a sense of freedom and control.

Staff members in these units are specifically trained to manage challenging behaviors and how to redirect when necessary. However, keep in mind, that SCUs are not designed to handle individuals who are physically out of control or who present a danger to themselves or other residents.

Consistent staff assignments in some SCUs offer familiarity, comfort and reassurance that can assist those who are confused and anxious.

Also consider that most secured units cost more than regular rooms in other parts of a care setting.

The Harvard School researchers further reported that only about 4.5% of all nursing home beds are part of such specialized care units. Features in these units can include everything from color-coded walls to assist with navigation to person-centered, therapeutic programs that help with memory impairment.

Questions about Alzheimer's disease or related disorders can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, owner of Dana Territo Consulting, LLC, at