The 3 Types of Adult Day Care

A nurse and elderly woman in a health care facility.

Managing the long-term care of a loved one can be difficult. Many people turn to family caregivers and other family members to get the senior care they need. Frequently, that means living full-time with family members. The high care costs of elder care can be made even more unbearable if the younger family members providing care services are unable to work because the care takes up so much of their time. 

Long-term living facilities for seniors like nursing homes are too expensive for many, and the care recipients themselves seem to prefer family caregivers by and large. Luckily, there are adult day care centers where seniors can go during the day so that their family members can still go to work, run errands, or take some respite from providing care. 

These adult day cares come in three varieties. Some are only geared toward giving the care recipient a social environment to interact with others and enjoy activities throughout the day while others are built to provide health services to the older adults who stay there. The third type of adult day care is tailored to older adults with cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. 

Adult day cares offer lots of care options and give family caregivers a bit more freedom. They tend to cost much less than nursing homes or medical  or assisted living facilities that offer full-time housing. Plus, the older adults who need adult day care centers tend to prefer the social activities and interaction that senior centers give to sitting at home isolated and waiting for family members to return from work. 

For some, staying at home may not be an option. People with Alzheimer’s Disease and similar cognitive conditions can’t be left alone for any period of time once it has progressed past a certain stage. These older adults can be taken to a specialized adult day care that will watch them for a few hours a day. It’s much better than the opposite, where the older adult is left at a nursing home and only sees family members for a few hours a day once in a while. 

Choosing the right kind of adult day care is a hard choice, especially when the care recipient may not be able to voice their opinion on the matter. Understanding the three kinds of adult day care centers will help give you an idea of which suits your family member best. This article should work as a more detailed guide to adult day care centers so readers know what they’re dealing with. 

What is an Adult Day Care Center?

Adult day care programs are run by both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Some may be faith-based or even headquartered on church property, while others might be in a newer building. Regardless of their organizational status, they generally all have social activities, plenty of social interaction, and occasionally a physical activity element such as light physical therapy. 

Adult day care centers might have a common room and outdoor area, or they can resemble classrooms. There might be musical instruments or radio, plus board games and other daily activities. If the older adults happen to be active seniors, they can even take field trips. In many ways, they do operate in much the same way as a day care for children would. Of course, since they are groups of older adults, the daily activities tend to be a bit different. 

Most adult day care centers will have at least one registered nurse on hand.

The 3 Types of Adult Day Care

Adult day care centers can be split into three groups, based on the ability of the older adults who are sent there. Sometimes a single day care might have its members organized into groups based on their cognitive ability, but it’s more likely that the entire adult day care will be one of the three types below to avoid confusion.

1. Social Adult Day Care

For older adults who enjoy social activities like cards, book clubs, discussion groups, music, bingo, field trips, and holiday celebrations, social adult day care is the best option. Participants’ mental faculties and personal tastes are accommodated at these centers, and there may even be visits from children’s day cares if the location allows. 

Most social adult day care centers try to look out for the members’ well beings by having some element of light physical activity or walking involved when possible, but there are generally not professional medical services on-hand. Almost all social adult day cares have a registered nurse around and some proximity to a medical center is always a strong selling point, but this first type of adult care is not meant for people who need constant help. 

The care given at these centers is still considered assisted living, but older adult members at a social adult day care are still able to do activities of daily living on their own. That generally includes using the toilet and feeding themselves, although there are staff on hand to help. 

2. Adult Day Health Care Centers

More sophisticated health services are available at adult day health care centers. While social adult day care might have hearing tests or blood pressure gauges all or part of the time, adult day health care (ADHC) centers have RNs and provide various kinds of therapy to seniors who need it. Medical records and an evaluation by a physician are needed to enroll at an ADHC center.

Older adults who have suffered a stroke or frequently exhibit confusion are the most frequent participants at ADHC centers. These facilities often have speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy for resident seniors. It’s also possible to have medication monitoring and general health monitoring at ADHC. These centers are sort of a middle ground between social adult day care and the specialized facilities that can take care of resident seniors with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive conditions. 

Many people in the early stages of such cognitive conditions go to an ADHC. They might later transfer to a more specialized adult day care if the need arises. Staff will be more involved with the activities of daily life at ADHC than they are at social adult day care.

3. Specialized Adult Day Care

For an adult day program for those with cognitive decline, memory loss, or disease like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, a specialized adult day care will be necessary. The staff are all trained to handle the specific characteristics of older adults with cognitive difficulties. There are several ways that care providers have theorized treating dementia, Alzheimer’s, and simple memory loss in older adults. Today, many facilities rely on comforting fictions to some degree, but there are others that are better-suited to people who have moments of memory loss in between periods of lucidity, or vice versa.

It will likely take a little more shopping around to find the right specialized adult day care because it will have to both align with the condition of a care recipient and also be able to appeal to their specific personality. However, it can be a huge relief to have some rest. After respite, care for a senior family member is much easier. In fact, many people find that they are able to act more like a family member and less like a nurse if they can take their loved one to a specialized adult day care, even if it’s only during business hours.

How to Find an Adult Day Care Center

When searching for adult day care services, it can be a challenge to find a place where you’re comfortable leaving your loved one in the charge of strangers. There are many area agencies that can help find adult day centers, and some are even sponsored by Medicare and Medicaid provided the care recipient is already a beneficiary. 

The National Adult Day Services Association, or NADSA, has plenty of resources on its website to find the right adult day care center. They also have a searchable database. Many adult day medical care facilities also have reviews online from people who have used their services before. Depending on what state you’re in, there might be a .gov domain website that has a list of adult day care resources for residents. The Eldercare locator is also a fine option.

What to Look for in an Adult Day Care Center

In addition to the particular needs of the care recipient, there are some other factors that should come into play when you’re looking for an adult day care center. Here are some examples, although this list in non-exhaustive:

  1. Are there social activities, like knitting, cards, a basketball hoop, music, plays, and so forth?
  2. Is it safe and secure, both from the inside and from the outside?
  3. Do they offer physical activities?
  4. What kind of food do they serve, and are they capable of catering to special diets?
  5. Does the nursing facility offer additional programs such as support groups for caregivers and extended respite care when the caretaker needs it?
  6. Can social services be contacted if they aren’t already provided onsite?
  7. Are they respectful of limits regarding care costs, and is there financial assistance available for low-income people if necessary?
  8. What sort of health monitoring do they have? Blood pressure and hearing only, or more?
  9. How many of the activities of daily living can they help with?
  10. Is speech therapy, physical therapy, or any other program offered as well?
  11. Can they offer transportation to and from the facility?

Monitoring the personal care of an aging loved one can’t be done by just a few family members alone. Many try to give loved ones full-time home care, but that’s a sure fire way for everyone – possibly including the care recipient – to get cabin fever and get at each other’s throats. An adult day care center that offers all or most of the things listed above will be the best option to get the specialized personal care that loved ones who are in declining health need.

Paying for Long-Term Adult Day Care

Day care facilities for older adults run easily more than $50 a day, depending on how much care they offer and where they’re located. Even if you only need it during business hours five days a week, that’s still a pretty sizable bill. Unfortunately, the gov doesn’t offer financial assistance through Medicare. However, there are a few other places you can look to try and pay for your loved one’s personal care needs. 

Medicaid does offer coverage to low-income people. NASDA may also have some resources to find private grants or charities if your loved one has Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s, or something similar. Veterans’ Benefits are also likely to have some coverage depending on how long the care recipient served. Private individual health insurance may or may not cover adult day care services, but it’s more likely they don’t unless you specifically asked for it when you bought the policy. The best insurance you can have is long-term care insurance.

Positive Effects of Adult Day Care

According to many studies, including research from the National Adult Day Services Association, using adult day care services reduces stress in both caregivers and the recipients they look after. Many daily stressors are likely behind this, but it also makes logical sense. From the caregiver’s perspective, being stuck with a loved one who may not remember who you are all the time or any of the time is not a good way to spend a whole day, especially not for weeks or months on end as may happen during long-term care. 

For older adults who need adult day care centers, having an afternoon filled with social activities and a variety of interesting things to concentrate on will leave them feeling better. The NADSA research also indicated that isolation can be as harmful to the human body as smoking tobacco can. Using adult day care centers is the best way to prevent that additional harm from a loved one who is already in cognitive decline. 

Adult Day Care and Improved Quality of Life

Composite studies of our quality of life have described it as comprising the following fields:

  • Physical functioning
  • ADLs
  • Social functioning
  • Emotional functioning
  • Mental health

Examining participants in adult day care centers, it is clear that their quality of life generally improves with the use of these nursing facilities. That may have a lot to do with the social interaction that comes with personal care in an adult day care. The social activities may also have a slight physical element or there could be additional activity from field trips or walks around the grounds that can boost health broadly. 

Participants report that their daily activities are less limited after a significant amount of time spent at adult day care. Now, of course, these kinds of responses are difficult to elicit from people who suffer memory loss or Alzheimer’s Disease, but family members of these participants frequently report similar positive results. Overall, it’s great not just for the loved ones who need the care but also a relief for family caregivers. 

Adult day care centers often encourage daily exercise.

How Does Adult Day Care Help Caregivers?

Respite care is something that many family caregivers don’t pay attention to until they’re already burned out. It can be hard not to be at a loved one’s side full-time as they battle cognitive conditions or ill health from the aging process, but every caregiver needs to take some time off for their own good and the good of their family members, including those receiving care. 

Time off is one of the most obvious benefits, but many family caregivers use adult day care as a way to continue working so that they can afford to give in-home care at least some of the time. Financial assistance isn’t always available and adult day care is the only option for families with older adult members who can’t be left alone. Even in larger families, people have to go to school and work. Plus, living a normal social life is important for everyone, and nobody wants to be the one whose aging prevents their family from having a fulfilling life.


Deciding to adult day care services for a loved one is a difficult – sometimes even heartbreaking – choice. But compared to the cost of a nursing home, these care services are the best way to give older adults fulfilling social activities and prevent them from suffering in isolation. 

Even if they have cognitive conditions like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, an adult day care can help them enjoy their time during business hours when the rest of the family has to work or go to school. It can help prevent burnout in family caregivers and in many cases has led to a deeper emotional connection between family members because they aren’t bickering about managing a loved one’s care. 

There are many things to consider when choosing an adult day care center, but it all depends on who your loved one is and how their body is handling the aging process. Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help families and loved ones make the best decision.

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