Using the Montessori method for dementia

Generally, when people think of the Montessori method of education, they think of an approach used for small children. However, when dementia therapists incorporate activities based on the Montessori Method, it can have tremendous value for people with dementia. While this is still a new idea, it has been gaining traction with dementia therapists, caregivers and loved ones of people living with the condition.

In a nutshell, the Montessori Method of teaching is based on the idea that when you’re working with children, you must consider their individual capabilities and needs. It discourages some of the conventional measures of achievement, such as tests. Based on the method developed by Maria Montessori in 1897, this teaching process can be adapted to one that helps dementia patients cope with everyday life through engaging activities that they find rewarding. The Montessori Method promotes independence, freedom within limits and supports the development of a person’s natural psychological, physical and social development. The individual is viewed as naturally eager and capable.

Montessori activities are simple, modifiable and practical. Just like with the Montessori teaching method, the activities or tasks shouldn’t be so challenging that the individual becomes frustrated and gives up but rather it needs to simply push them a little out of their comfort zone, so that they feel comfortable but also have the opportunity to improve. Effectively using this method should allow people with dementia to reconnect in a world they’re losing access to. It should stimulate them through sensory experiences such as art or music therapy to allow them to feel positive emotions they might have lost touch with. In many cases, their long-term memories are largely preserved by maximising opportunities for dementia patients to reconnect with pleasant past events and re-experience the positive emotions associated with that event. It is possible for dementia therapists to use the Montessori approach to re-engage the types of memories spared by dementia, such as motor memory.

Here are some Montessori activities that you can incorporate for a loved one living with dementia:

  • Cognitive activities: It’s important to exercise their brain by doing activities that require them to think. This is best for those diagnosed with less severe dementia who still retain a lot of their memories, as someone with a more severe condition might get more frustrated as their memories begin to fade. Either way, simple activities like puzzles and sorting exercises are good ways to exercise the mind. Dementia therapists must take into account their individual skills and condition and modify the types of activities that are most appropriate for them.
  • Sensory activities: The sensors are invariably linked to feelings and emotions, and by engaging the mind in sensory activities it allows the participant to feel these positive emotions. To engage the sense of smell use scented candles and see if your loved one can identify the scent, which they like the most and why (Is there a memory associated with it).
  • Music: Activities involving music are generally a safe option no matter what stage of dementia your loved one is in as the part of the brain that identifies music is generally last affected. Ask them about their favourite songs, ask them about the songs they liked growing up and even listen to some music together. Listening to music can also bring up memories that they may want to reminisce on. Dementia therapists can also play some games like seeing if they can identify a song by listening to snippets of it.
  • Movement activities: It’s no surprise that elders get less physical exercise as they get older. Movement has many physical and psychological benefits, even just small movements for short periods of time — the point is to get moving. Your loved one should incorporate slow, deep breathing in order to feel more in control of their bodies. You can get them to do some light movements like stretching their hands up or even just going for a walk. Getting them to do activities that require physical movement, even just something like folding clean towels, is a great way to keep them active and keep them feeling like they have something to contribute.
  • Creative activities: Something that can be often overlooked is the fact that people with dementia still have a great amount of creativity and creative contributions to make. This will also allow them to keep their mind busy and feel productive. You can give them a space to paint, draw or even do pottery if they so wish. Finding creative means for them to express themselves can be incredibly satisfying. You can also make it a group activity and involve the rest of the family.

If you’re looking at new activities and approaches to stimulate your loved one, the benefits of incorporating the Montessori Method are hard to overlook. The activities have benefits for people with dementia but also for caregivers, dementia therapists and family. Approach the method in a way that takes into account how flexible and modifiable it is and assess your loved ones needs in order to choose activities that benefit them and their individual needs.

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Livewell Estates are a specialist family of dementia and Alzheimer’s care facilities based in South Africa, specialising in personalised and tailored care.