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Using the Montessori Method for Dementia

Mark Huntsman
By Mark HuntsmanFebruary 20, 2019

Last Updated: February 20, 2019

The Montessori Method is well-known for being used to successfully engage children, but it’s also an approach that’s gaining traction with caregivers of parents and senior loved ones with dementia. While it’s still a new idea, there is already evidence that the Montessori Method can reduce anxiety for people with dementia by providing them with engaging activities that they find rewarding.

Learn more about how caregivers are using the approach to engage seniors and how you can put it into practice with a loved one.

Connecting the Montessori Method to Dementia

Developed in the early 20th century, the Montessori Method of teaching holds that when you’re working with children, you must consider their capabilities and needs. What are they able to do? What do they like to do? The balancing act the teacher performs centers on not challenging the students — you don’t want them to become frustrated and give up — but rather, making the task a little beyond their comfort zone, so they still have the opportunity to improve. The same is true for those with dementia.

The Montessori Method of caregiving for dementia has a similar goal of engaging the senses in order to help seniors with the disease rediscover the world around them.

Providing the most effective care means maximizing the opportunities these individuals have to reconnect with a world they’re losing access to. Caregivers and researchers alike are increasingly finding that sensory experiences created through art or music therapy and physical activities gives senior loved ones with dementia positive emotions that they may have lost the ability to experience.

Though a senior may become paranoid or withdrawn as dementia advances, in many cases, their long-term memories will be largely well-preserved. The Montessori Method is about providing ways to connect with those memories. Presenting a senior loved one with fresh flowers and an empty vase may give him or her a way to step out of a sense of isolation and into a beautiful spring day, because the experience of putting the flowers in the vase is enough to powerfully call forth the memory of cutting fresh flowers, for instance.

The personal touch and positive attitudes that are hallmarks of the Montessori Method help caregivers maximize their loved ones’ opportunities to reconnect with pleasant events of the past and to re-experience the accompanying positive emotions.

How Caregivers Can Use the Montessori Method for Dementia

Dr. Cameron Camp, a psychologist in applied gerontology, discovered that the Montessori Method could be adapted into the basis of a new approach to dementia care. Dr. Camp states the problem this way: “How can we connect with the person who is still here?” One answer to this question is to use the Montessori approach to re-engage the types of memory that are spared by dementia, including motor memory such as how to dress and how to eat.

An example of a skills-building activity that Dr. Camp employs involves people with dementia using a slotted spoon to dig in a tub of dry rice for objects that are buried beneath the surface. When they find a “treasure,” the rice falls through the slots, leaving the object on the spoon. In the process, their brains are re-learning the motor skills that are necessary to feed yourself.

“We want to flip the system on its ear,” Dr. Camp says, “to change people’s expectations about what people with dementia are capable of. Our job is to allow this person to be present — to help them, wherever they are in the journey of dementia, to be connected with a community and contribute to the best of their ability.”

Let’s take a look at different ways caregivers can put Montessori into practice:

  1. For advanced dementia, people may take comfort in holding dolls, a series of dolls and doll clothes can make for a pleasurable activity.
  2. For those who enjoy baking or cooking, baking ingredients and a safe kitchen environment.
  3. Have a basket of clean socks that need to be matched and folded.
  4. Lay out a basket of clean towels to fold.
  5. Prep tables with materials for activities such as puzzles, sorting exercises and other games.
  6. Put out a bin of plastic plumbing tubes that can be connected and put together.

What we’re increasingly learning is that those with dementia can come to not only enjoy the process of participating in something they used to regularly do, but also come away with a definite sense of accomplishment that can help improve their quality of life.

Have you or a loved one found the Montessori method helpful? Please share stories about your experience in the comments below.

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Mark Huntsman

Mark Huntsman

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