Montessori methods help dementia residents

Dementia is one of the most challenging illnesses plaguing seniors.  There is so much that is still unknown about this degenerative disease.  However, new advances in social sciences have discovered that a century-old education philosophy can be effective in delaying the progression of dementia and help patients to feel happier and more productive, contributing to a greater quality of life.

In 1907, Maria Montessori, the famous Italian physician and educator, began an experimental school for “unmanageable” students.  She believed that children’s learning success could be enhanced by creating a secured and ordered environment.  In practice, this meant adapting the environment to suit the needs of children - using small tables and chairs and tools designed for small hands and level of dexterity, for example.  Montessori believed that by changing the environment to reflect the needs of children, educators could relieve boredom, encourage independence and achieve great levels of enlightenment.

The Montessori method eliminates judgement, so nothing is “right” or “wrong”.  It strives to make students feel worthy and successful, to foster independence in individuals, allowing them to showcase their natural abilities and learn new ones; while treating them with respect and dignity and viewing their physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, spiritual and cognitive needs and interests as inseparable qualities and all equally important.

The Montessori method quickly caught on in Europe and eventually made its way to North America.  Today, there are thousands of Montessori schools across Canada and the US.  It is clear that the benefits of the Montessori method has made headways in child development, but in the last few years, these principles have also been adopted in seniors’ assisted living facilities.

Cameron Camp, an American psychologist and researcher, was the man who discovered that Montessori’s philosophy could be adapted and applied to seniors with dementia.

The basic tenants of Montessori’s learning principles easily translate into the assisted living environment.  Dementia patients often feel disconnected from themselves and their surroundings.  Montessori believed that learning would ensue as long as the environment was tailored to the unique needs of the student.  The environment means both the physical surrounds and the ambiance created by educators.

Following the Montessori principles, activity directors work to create familiar surroundings for dementia residents – creating a smaller and more manageable world.  Tasks are broken down into relatively simple steps so the resident is unlikely to forget or fumble.  Through positive reinforcement and repetition and the use of the five senses – residents can remember how to perform tasks they once did on their own.

A recent article published by the Globe and Mail titled “Finding the normal person behind the dementia”, highlighted a study by the Gilbrea Centre for Studies in Aging, in the Faculty of Social Sciences at McMaster University.  The study uncovered boredom as a trigger for people with dementia.

Boredom manifests in children in the form of behavioural problems and outbursts.  As children mature into adults, they learn to control their behavioural responses to boredom in more socially acceptable ways.  In dementia patients, boredom can trigger challenging behaviours as they lose this social filter.

Some of the most common behaviour difficulties faced by care givers of dementia patients include wandering, repetitive questioning, and constant unwarranted requests for attention.  Using the Montessori method, engaging the resident at their own level of ability, can help to alleviate boredom and overcome some of these behavioural challenges.

Dementia targets the declarative memory – the type of memory that is responsible for remembering facts, events, world knowledge, language and biographic history.  This form of memory has proven to benefit the most from environmental cueing techniques used by the Montessori method.

A person who suffers from dementia may not be able to retrieve certain information from their memory, but they may find the cues the need in their environment.  For instance, a person who constantly asks to for a walk may do so because they can’t remember that they just returned from their walk.  A laminated card or schedule showing what time they last went for a walk and when someone will return to take them again, will help to alleviate their anxiety.

While the use of the Montessori method cannot cure dementia, it can help to deal with the early symptoms, delaying its progression.  More importantly, the creation of a healthy environment, tailored towards the needs of dementia residents can help to not only alleviate the negative behavioural symptoms that accompany the disease, but contribute to a better quality of life for dementia sufferers.