A special care unit (SCU) is an inpatient unit within a healthcare facility that is custom-designed, staffed, and equipped to care for people with specific health conditions. They are usually in a physically separate space from other patient populations.
Traditionally found in hospitals, SCUs also are becoming increasingly common within assisted living and skilled nursing facilities in the U.S. A few examples of some of the SCUs you might find within an assisted living facility or nursing home include:
- Memory/cognitive care for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia; offer a safe, secured environment, as well as specialized therapeutic programs for those who have memory issues.
- Neurological care for those who have Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease or who have suffered a stroke; care services may include physical, speech, occupational, and swallowing therapies.
- Orthopedic rehabilitation for people who have undergone orthopedic surgery; include specialized rehabilitation equipment and treatment by experienced rehabilitation professionals.
- Cardiac/pulmonary care for those with heart or lung issues; patients may receive specialized services like exercise therapy, smoking cessation programs, and education on lifestyle modification.
- Hospice care for people approaching the end of life; provide a compassionate environment focused on physical and emotional comfort for the patient, as well as their loved ones.
A focus on memory care
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that, as of 2016, there were 15,600 licensed nursing homes in the U.S., 1.7 million nursing home beds, and 1.5 million nursing home residents. Special care unit beds comprise around 6 percent of this total, according to statistics from the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. But of all of the different types of SCUs that are available, memory care units are by-far the most common, accounting for nearly three-fourths of all special care unit beds.
According to the Harvard researchers, around 750,000 of the people living in nursing homes in the U.S. have a diagnosis of dementia—that’s half of all long‐term nursing home residents. More than one-third of people who have dementia in the U.S. live in a nursing home, and around 70 percent of Americans who have dementia will eventually die in a nursing home.
>> Related: When Memory Issues Are Cause for Concern
Memory care in CCRCs
In addition to the growing number of memory care beds found in free-standing assisted living facilities and nursing homes, more and more continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, or life plan communities) are offering specialized memory care as part of their on-campus healthcare services.
Depending on the CCRC, some care for people with less advanced stages of the disease may be provided in the general community setting or in a special memory care “neighborhood” of the community. As the person’s condition progresses, they may receive their care in a memory SCU of the community’s healthcare center.
Is specialized care better care?
With these huge numbers of both dementia patients, as well as the growing number of memory care unit beds, it’s worth asking if the care people receive in a memory care unit is actually any better than the care they would receive in a general population of assisted living or nursing home residents.
A study out of the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School analyzed nationwide data from resident-level assessments, Medicare claims, and provider-level data from 2005 to 2010. The researchers discovered that dementia patients who resided in a nursing home with a memory care SCU had better quality of care and improved outcomes.
More specifically, the study found that admission to a nursing home with a specialized memory care unit reduced inappropriate anti-psychotic use, physical restraints, pressure ulcers, feeding tubes, and hospitalizations.
Special memory care services
A special care unit for memory-related issues is specifically designed to accommodate the unique needs of dementia patients.
First and foremost, memory care units will have a focus on resident safety. For example, since people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia frequently wander, especially at night, these units have custom equipment and technology to ensure residents are not put in danger by wandering or falls, such as special door locks or motion sensors for the lights. They also may have water faucets that only produce warm, not scalding hot, water to ensure residents can’t be burned while bathing.
It is frightening to not know who people are or where you are, so reducing the anxiety of dementia patients is another focus of memory care units. One method some memory care units use to help with this is to using color-coding in the hallways to help patients with way-finding. The specially trained staff also help residents with self-care and communication.
These special units typically will offer a variety of therapeutic programming as well to help ease some of the symptoms that accompany dementia. This may include art or music therapy, animal therapy, or meditation. As I’ve written about before, one innovative memory care unit even uses scent-based reminiscence therapy to try to help their residents trigger memories.
>> Related: Game On: Can Brain Games Improve Your Memory?
Tailored care in special care units
Whether a person is dealing with the aftereffects of a stroke, is rehabbing from an orthopedic surgery, or suffers from a cardiopulmonary condition, there is a special care unit custom-designed to meet their unique care needs. With the growing incidence of dementia in the U.S., the demand for specialized memory care, in particular, will only increase in the coming years.
Based on the study out of Harvard, the specialized care people receive in a memory care unit is typically superior to a regular nursing home or assisted living facility, but it is also important to know that it’s more expensive. A room in an assisted living facility averages around $4,000 per month, whereas a room in a memory care unit will cost closer to $6,000 each month on average (and more if skilled nursing care is needed). But as the Harvard study reveals, you may get what you pay for when it comes to specialized memory care.