What is an EMI unit
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What is an EMI unit? The complete guide

5 min read

If your loved one has dementia, you may have come across the term 'EMI unit' when researching care home options.

EMI (Elderly Mentally Infirm) is an increasingly outdated term, it's far more common to see care homes refer to 'specialist dementia units'.

These units exist because in the advanced stages of the disease people living with dementia may require dedicated support and condition management.

This article provides a complete guide to EMI units and how they could help your loved one.

Here’s a summary of what we’ll cover:

  • An EMI unit is a specialist dementia care facility which provides care to people living with advanced dementia. 
  • Unlike a regular care home, EMIs offer specialist equipment and features like sensory rooms that cater to care needs for dementia. 
  • Moving to an EMI unit is only suitable for people in the late stages of dementia who need individual care relating to their condition.
EMI unit specialist dementia care facility

What is an EMI unit?

EMI is a care sector term that stands for Elderly Mentally Infirm. 

It can be used to describe an individual who is in the later stages of dementia and experiencing an array of challenging symptoms and cognitive decline. 

While the phrase ‘EMI’ is falling out of use, EMI units remain in place, but increasingly under a different name.

They are often called dementia units or the care home may be registered by the CQC for specialist dementia care services. 

Where are they located?

Generally, an EMI, or dementia care unit, is found within a residential care or nursing home, usually separate from the main home. 

These units are more secure than a residential home to maintain the safety of the residents who stay in the unit. 

Are you worried about a loved one?

Early signs of dementia free guide

What are the features of an EMI unit?

EMI units are set up to provide a safe and calming space for people experiencing advanced dementia. 

Their purpose is to treat both the condition and support and soothe their anxiety, as dementia can bring on extreme stress.

Let’s look at some of the features of an EMI unit that help residents engage the brain and enjoy positive sensory stimulation.

Memory focused activities

Similar to a dementia cafe, EMI units usually have memory-triggering activities available to residents. 

This might include playing old music, or going through photograph albums, as well as dementia-friendly games and puzzles. 

This can be helpful for reminiscence therapy sessions and support your loved one to feel a little better while living with the disease.

sensory table at EMI unit

Dementia tables

These provide a sensory experience, to connect the person with the physical world. 

The activities stimulate the senses, which engages the brain, through activities like popping bubble wrap, or holding pebbles and stones. 

They will also be able to engage with fellow residents and work together in a social way during the tasks.

Sensory gardens

A sensory garden will also seek to connect the person to the physical world and stimulate the senses. 

They may contain herbs and flowers, plus water features, rock gardens and a varied palette of colours.

The residents may even be encouraged to partake in some safe gardening tasks such as snipping flowers to decorate the home.

routine at an EMI unit

Small communal areas

Different to a regular care home, the EMI unit may have a small and quiet communal area. 

Distractions and noises can be upsetting to those living with dementia, so by limiting the size of the room, and the things in it, this can be minimised. 

Daily routines

Those living with dementia can find a routine very comforting and it can be achieved through a number of activities. 

Within the EMI unit, a routine is established to help residents feel safe, and manage their anxiety.  

This could include individual care happening at the same time every day, or sitting down to enjoy a dementia memory book a few times a week.

Who works at an EMI unit

Who works in an EMI unit?

An EMI unit is staffed by specially trained nurses, with the support of specially trained care assistants. 

There may be mental health nurses staffing the unit, as well as registered nurses with experience in dementia care.

What is severe cognitive decline?

Severe cognitive impairment refers to the progressive decline of brain function as one of the primary dementia symptoms. 

The disease causes damage throughout the brain, usually starting with judgement difficulties, and moments of confusion. 

This transitions into memory issues, behaviour changes and gradual inability to complete daily tasks and functions.

Severe cognitive decline occurs after years of living with the condition and is, sadly, an inevitable aspect of the disease.

Are you worried about a loved one?

Early signs of dementia free guide

What is loss of function?

The loss of ‘function’ refers to both social and occupational functions such as the ability to recall information, speech and physical coordination. 

People living with dementia will experience loss of function as the disease progresses and gradually lose mental and physical abilities. 

While dementia is primarily known for its cognitive impact, it’s the physical loss of function that often causes families to need care for their loved one. 

As the inability to move or eat independently, alongside their reduced cognitive function, renders them unable to live safely at home without support. 

What is severe cognitive decline

How long does severe cognitive decline usually last?

There is no definite answer as to how long someone will remain in an EMI unit with severe cognitive decline. 

However, the average dementia life expectancy in the state of severe cognitive decline is 3-5 years. 

Please remember that this figure could be more or less, depending on the person and the care and support they receive. 

People with milder decline have a longer life expectancy and can live happily in a care home without an EMI unit for years. 

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Who can use an EMI unit?

Those who are experiencing severe cognitive decline fall into the category of EMI, especially those who have been ill for a long time.

These units can also be used to manage dementia with other conditions and can cater for people who are bedbound or have other nursing care needs.

Who doesn’t need an EMI unit?

People without cognitive decline will not need the care of an EMI unit, but may benefit from care at home or in a residential setting. 

However, they will not find the EMI unit of much help to them, as it is tailored to people with advanced dementia. 

For more advice about when should someone with dementia go into a care home, head to our advice pages. 

Who doesn't need an EMI unit

What about people with newly diagnosed dementia?

People with newly diagnosed dementia can benefit from both home care visits and support in a residential care home.

This could include help with a daily routine to support their memory issues which can be one of the early signs of dementia.

Getting reminders around hygiene, maintaining daily routine and health support, can be very helpful.

Social interaction is also of great benefit to people living with dementia, and fun, engaging activities can help to slow the progression of the disease.

Does my loved one need an EMI unit

Does my loved one need an EMI unit?

If your loved one doesn’t have advanced dementia an EMI unit is not the best option for them. 

However, if they’ve received a dementia diagnosis, finding a care home that they like is important.  

An EMI unit attached might be a good option as they may need specialist EMI support in the future.

And moving from one part of the home to another may prove less stressful than upheaving them to a completely different location.

Are you worried about a loved one?

Early signs of dementia free guide

Is an EMI unit more expensive than normal care?

The specialist care provided in an EMI unit is more expensive than in a care home – up to £500 more per week than in a residential care home. 

Due to the condition, the needs of EMI residents are greater than those of a resident in a care home. 

Also, the care is given by specially trained staff over more support hours, which is a more intensive service, and therefore more costly. 

Remember that care costs do vary across the UK, with the south being the most expensive for care home costs.

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Dementia care for your loved one

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