Every day at 3 p.m., Jim Copenhaver visits his 80-year-old wife, Ann, who lives at an assisted-living facility in Vernon Hills for those with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
"It's the highlight of my day," said Jim Copenhaver, 87, who helps feed her at dinner.
Ann has Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia. Her condition has worsened over the years, and she no longer talks. Jim isn't sure his wife still recognizes him, but, he says cheerfully, "There's a feeling between us."
For many years, he took care of his wife at home. When she was first diagnosed with the disease 12 years ago, Jim hired a caretaker to visit the house once a week and help out. As the disease progressed, Ann attended a day program for seniors with memory loss. In 2010, the couple moved to a retirement community so they could stay together, but that arrangement only lasted five weeks because Ann started to wander.
Jim and the couple's daughters decided to move Ann to Autumn Leaves of Vernon Hills, which provides specially trained staff and activities geared toward residents with dementia. She can walk around inside the building and stay safe.
"It's such a relief to me that she's there," he said. "There is no way I could care for her on my own."
Memory loss is associated with dementia, a decline in mental ability. Dementia has a variety of causes, but about 60 to 80 percent of the cases are from Alzheimer's disease.
The number of people affected by the disease is staggering. One in 8 older Americans have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association. The disease is most common among the oldest seniors. About 45 percent of those 85 and older have Alzheimer's disease.
As the huge baby boomer population ages, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease will rise dramatically. It's expected that up to 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer's disease by 2050.
Many people with memory problems live at home or with relatives. But as the number of those with memory loss grows, other housing options are becoming widely available to meet their needs.
Some senior living facilities offer apartments designated for dementia sufferers, while others are converting traditional assisted living or nursing care units into memory care apartments.
Last fall, Lexington Square, a senior living development in Lombard, converted 69 assisted-living units to memory care. The Abington, a nursing home in Glenview, recently renovated its dementia care wing, adding common and activity areas specifically for those with memory impairment.
New stand-alone memory care facilities are also being built. About 4,000 memory care units are under construction nationwide, according to the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry. The Chicago area has more than 300 memory care units under way.
Last March, Monica Fohrman moved her mother to North Grove Manor, a new memory care building in Morton Grove. Her mother had been living in a retirement community but was struggling.
"It was getting harder and harder for her to do little things," Fohrman said. Her mother also experienced social pressures because she couldn't hold a conversation with other residents. "My mother felt left out," Fohrman said.
Fohrman knew her mother's living arrangement wasn't working, so she toured several assisted-living facilities and selected North Grove Manor because of its memory care unit.
"The staff is trained to handle memory problems," Fohrman said. "All the residents are like my mom."
North Grove Manor was developed by CRL Senior Living Communities, which recently opened another new memory care building, Arbor Ridge, in Highland Park.
Other developers have projects in the works. A new assisted-living facility in Northbrook will include a floor for those with memory loss. The five-story building, North Shore Place, will be near the Chicago Botanic Garden. The project by Senior Lifestyle Corporation of Chicago should begin construction this spring.
Plans were announced in December to build an $11.1 million Autumn Leaves memory care facility in South Barrington. Autumn Leaves has a project under way in Bolingbrook in addition to existing developments in Vernon Hills, Orland Park, Crystal Lake, St. Charles and Oswego.