How Can Montessori Methods Help Alzheimer’s?

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 Memoriespainting

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 This gentleman who had always been extremely withdrawn began to come out of his shell the moment his eye caught the box and its contents.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.

Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • Kathy

    An excellent, caring approach. It ‘taps’ into the (usually) well preserved bank of long-term memory & pleasant events of the past.

  • AKG

    I love the positive approach of bringing joy to the patient. All those deep seated memories are there, the caregiver team needs to create the spark that will ignite the fire!

  • Shawn Edwards

    This is great. I live in Georgetown, Texas, which is very much a retirement community. and have 25 years of Montessori experience. I would love to bring this to the different centers

  • OT

    Sounds a lot like occupational therapy

    • D C

      Or you could say OT sounds like Montessori…. Montessori method is not new, and I hope it has influenced OT!

  • Sophia Roy

    ……feel so happy … daughter Shurobi Hindocha shared this with me this morning… so much of reseach and work has been done ….. created.immense oppurtunities for work with these individuals….. a deep sense of satisfaction to know that no one is neglected…..there are more approaches now … where previously they were scarce…….deep gratitude Maria Montessori, your love and wisdom …..they are eternal…..

  • Hoppy Maine

    It’s easy to get trapped by focusing only on the losses – what the cognitively impaired can no longer do, worrying chiefly about the future. This approach helps build focus on what the patient can still do in the present – an important philosophical re-orientation for the caregiver, I find. Really quite helpful.

  • S Lynn Knight

    Dear Ann, I must be in a parallel universe to yours! I am entering this phase with my mom after being barred from visiting my parents for nearly three years due to accusations of thievery and paranoia manifest in my mom through AD. It was excruciating not being allowed to assist my parents or even speak to them. In a turn of events too long for this comment I have been allowed ‘in’ to help. I’ve been home for nearly two months and it’s been like riding a mechanical bull with both hands tied behind your back! I have a degree in music therapy and I certainly know the value of stimulating the senses in any context. My deep gratitude for your experience and commitment to share any and all possible interventions which will aid us families and caregivers to maintain and improve loved ones’ daily quality of life. So, THANK YOU! I write a series on my daily experience caring for my folks and it can be found here:[Link Removed]

  • greg morris

    while some aspects I agree with, I completely disagree with the idea of letting them sleep until they are ready to get up or to go to bed when they are ready. I think this is completely inappropriate for patients with Alzheimers because they don’t KNOW. It seems more of a benefit for staff who can now say, I don’t have to care for them because they are still asleep or simply don’t want to get up or to go to bed. Sorry but, IMHO…..

About The Author

Profile photo of Ann Napoletan