Discover how Montessori methods are helping people with dementia

November 20, 2017

There are nearly half a million people living with dementia in Australia, says Health Direct, and it’s up to the healthcare industry to do whatever it can to help these people in need. Although research into dementia is ongoing, there is one area already proving effective at helping older people lead active, full lives.

This approach is known as Montessori, and although it originates from children’s education, the method can help people with dementia too. In this article, we explore the origins of Montessori, and how Australian carers can adapt it to clients living with dementia.

Maria Montessori was the first woman in medical school in Italy, and graduated as a doctor in 1896.

Maria Montessori was the first female in medical school in Italy, and graduated as a doctor in 1896.

Where did Montessori come from?

The story of Montessori begins with Maria, an Italian doctor born at the turn of the 20th century. Maria Montessori was the first woman in medical school in Italy, and graduated as a doctor in 1896. She was  a strong advocate of equal rights for women and children with disabilities, and earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949. Her ideas were often seen as controversial, such as when she was advocating that the lack of support for mentally or developmentally disabled people was the cause of their difficulties.

Arguably, her true legacy is the Montessori Method. First started at her school – Casa dei Bambini – in Rome, this method of education was about allowing children to educate themselves through meaningful activities. Dr Montessori would start with a wide variety of lessons to teach her children, and then only continue the ones that actually engaged them. She realised that there was a real power in developing a curriculum to suit a child’s individual interests.

Nowadays, the Montessori Method is used across 22,000 schools worldwide, according to Montessori Australia, and has a longer track record of success than any other educational method in the world.

So where does dementia fit into this?

As dementia is a condition affecting memory, personality and reasoning, Montessori – as an experience-based system – aims to connect a person to their memory via meaningful physical or sensory sensations. We cannot currently cure dementia, but adapting a client’s environment around them can help lessen some of the symptoms.

Physical activities that mean something to a person have shown to be able to engage positive emotional responses. A paper written by applied gerontologist Dr Cameron Camp described a study where he worked with 16 residents in a long-term advanced dementia unit, hoping to see the effects of this program in action. The group who participated in Montessori activities showed more constructive engagement than those in regularly scheduled activities, and importantly, they also showed more pleasure.

Ultimately, using Montessori for people living with dementia is about helping clients re-engage with their surroundings, contribute to the community and have the opportunity to restore basic functions.

Montessori is about helping clients re-engage with their surroundings, contribute to the community and restore basic functions.

Examples of Montessori being used

Dr Camp also tried to help some of his clients regain the ability to feed themselves by playing a game. The older person involved was given a slotted spoon and a tub of rice, and had to dig for treasure. When the treasure was found, the rice fell away through the slots in the spoon.

“Our focus is working with the strengths that remain,” he said on the American Psychological Society website. “[We’re] finding the person behind the memory problems, engaging the individual and letting everyone involved have a feeling of success and accomplishment.”

In an example from Montessori for Dementia – an Australian Montessori training provider – an older woman’s daughter and carer, Cheryl, engaged with her mother through games and reading activities. The older person, Thelma, was able to read a written story aloud, play a game of bingo, and discuss with Cheryl her past dreams of visiting Africa. She was even cracking jokes during the session.

How to apply Montessori 

One way to learn about this method of care is to undertake a training course. Montessori for Dementia, for example, offers a two-day workshop that gives carers practical experience in working with people with dementia and applying Montessori environments to their needs. You can also book training with Australia’s national Montessori body, Montessori Ageing Support Services (MASS).

The following are also examples of small ways to put Montessori into practice, as outlined by Altzheimer’

  1. Leave out a basket of socks that need to be matched and folded.
  2. Prep a table of puzzles and sorting exercises.
  3. Create a safe kitchen environment with available baking ingredients.

Working with Tunstall

Tunstall is committed to supporting people around the world to maintain their health and independence at home. To find out more about the healthcare solutions that we offer, contact us today.