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How Can Montessori Methods Help Alzheimer's?

Ann Napoletan
By Ann NapoletanAugust 14, 2013

Most often associated with early childhood education, the Montessori Method of teaching was developed at the turn of the 20th century by Dr. Maria Montessori. This child-centered (or person-centered in the case of Alzheimer’s) approach relies heavily on muscle memory as well as use of the five senses to stimulate various parts of the brain.

The Alzheimer’s Connection

What, then, does all of this have to do with Alzheimer’s?  Well, Tom and Karen Brenner are Montessori gerontologists and authors of “You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care.” Together they are looking to change the way dementia care is delivered.

The premise is to build a program of care based on each individual’s strengths, interests, and needs. Activities are created using materials that elicit memories or bear some sense of familiarity to patients. The exercises encourage use of repetitive muscle memory as well as multiple senses.

Unlocking Long Buried Memories

The Brenners note that great value lies in using sensory cues to unlock memories that may otherwise never reach the surface. For instance, presenting a patient with several bundles of fresh herbs may jog long buried memories. With no goading at all — just presentation of something as simple as fresh herbs, a dementia patient known for his difficult behavior melts into a gentle soul reminiscing about his mother’s garden.

Another patient immediately connected with a fishing tackle box containing interesting lures and bobbers in varying sizes. This gentleman who had always been extremely withdrawn began to come out of his shell the moment his eye caught the box and its contents. Suddenly, the emptiness in his eyes was replaced by joy and a sense of connection.

The Challenges

A key tenet of the Montessori Method is finding and building on the unique strengths of each student, and with that comes an obvious challenge: lack of time. The caregiver-to-patient ratios in today’s traditional care models barely allow for adequate assistance with ADLs, and there is little or no time left over for meaningful interaction.

Most facilities, however, do have an Activities Director or staff responsible for planning and coordinating outings, group activities, exercises classes, et cetera. While there is a time and place for bingo and balloon volleyball, perhaps some of this time could be set aside for activities more in line with Dr. Montessori’s teachings. It’s certainly something worth suggesting.

Success, Confidence, Joy

The Montessori techniques aim to help patients experience success, which does wonders for building confidence. One man, when presented with several blocks in varying sizes, proceeded to build a tower, disassemble it, and rebuild it in the reverse order. The sense of accomplishment was obvious in the smile that lit up his previously expressionless face.

Ideas for activities are limited only by your imagination; you might try painting, working with clay, drumming, puzzles, or color matching games. Alternatively, think about presenting some props like cooking utensils, clothespins, a small pile of tea towels, brightly colored skeins of yarn, a 10-key adding machine, a toolbox containing a few simple tools and various-sized nuts and bolts, or even some fragrant fresh flowers and an empty vase.

The goal is to understand the whole person; physical, intellectual, and spiritual, and then devise activities they find meaningful. Remember that it may take some trial and error, but chances are the rewards will be great. Tapping Montessori concepts in the world of dementia care can yield magical moments of joy for both the patient and the caregiver.

Leave a comment letting us know your thoughts and suggestions on Montessori-inspired activities.

Ann Napoletan

Ann Napoletan

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