Wondering about the different approaches to caring for people with dementia? Inspiration is everywhere – and there’s some great evidence that shows that applying Montessori methods to dementia care can deliver some promising results.

Published in Seniorly Resource Center, September 18, 2023
Reviewed by Nipun Chopra
Bridging the worlds of gerontology and early education may seem an unlikely connection, but as a gerontologist with over a decade of experience, it’s always exciting to see where practitioners are finding inspiration.

Some of the most innovative memory care providers are leveraging Montessori principles from early education to improve care for people living with dementia, producing surprisingly positive results. And for family members and loved ones who support someone with dementia, this is great news.

Maria Montessori: a philosophy of care that transcends age

Conceived by Dr. Maria Montessori, the Montessori method is a way of understanding and supporting human learning, exploration and independence. As traditionally practiced, the Montessori approach encourages children to engage directly with their environment through sensory-rich, hands-on experiences. In a typical Montessori program, children happily lose themselves in meaningful, self-directed activities. They discover their abilities and build a strong foundation of self-confidence and independence. Classes are usually comprised of children of mixed ages, which encourages older children to mentor and teach younger ones.

The Montessori approach also encourages teachers to guide each child individually, rather than instructing from the head of the classroom. Teachers respect each student’s pace and style of learning, fostering an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. This dynamic interaction between the teacher and students results in a nurturing, positive environment conducive for holistic learning.

So, what can dementia care practitioners learn from this respected philosophy? Based on the evidence, a lot.

Montessori based dementia programming: an overview

At its core, the Montessori approach is about honoring the humanity in people, and the belief that by doing so, we encourage them to live more fully, authentically and to reach their potential. It’s this compassionate and individualized approach that makes the Montessori method remarkably applicable to care for older adults with moderate stage dementia or even advanced dementia. Depending on the stage of dementia, both preschool children and dementia patients often face the same set of challenges: difficulty with communication, loss of agency and difficulty with emotional regulation, just to name a few.

In a Montessori-based dementia program, the principles of Montessori education are translated into a philosophy of care for dementia patients. This person-centered care encourages individuals with dementia to engage with their environment meaningfully, thus enhancing their quality of life.

A combined analysis of scientific research examining the usage of Montessori methods for dementia care showed a high degree of confidence that the methodology would improve eating behavior, and some evidence for its utility in treating dementia.

Montessori methods for dementia care: how does it work?

Forward-thinking assisted living residences and memory care communities are starting to add touches of “Montessori life” to their resident programs. These caregivers use innovative interventions to promote independence, lessen agitation, improve mood, and foster social interaction. While implementation of the Montessori method varies, some common elements include:

  • Promoting Independence: Resident assisted Montessori programming focuses on environments that are easy to navigate and allow residents a certain degree of autonomy. For example, circular hallways that allow freedom of movement and oversight are common. Similar to the organization in a Montessori classroom, tools and resources are organized and clearly labeled to allow the individual to function more independently.
  • Task Analysis: In a typical Montessori classroom, teachers will help students tackle complex tasks by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. By applying the Montessori approach to dementia care, caregivers might help residents approach a complex task like getting dressed by breaking it down into more manageable and sequential pieces, like putting on socks, then putting on shoes. This helps patients feel successful and capable, reducing frustration.
  • Multisensory Stimulation: Following the Montessori principle of sensory-based learning, older adults engage with multisensory stimuli, like music, tactile materials, visuals, and smells to engage the patients, stimulate their senses and evoke memories and restore a sense of calm. This brain stimulation may also help build cognitive reserve.
  • Reality Orientation: Caregivers provide dementia patients with clear markers of time and place, similar to the order and consistency in Montessori environments. This might include large, easy-to-read clocks, calendars, and personal belongings, which can assist in reinforcing their sense of reality and routine. If you tour a memory care facility, you just might see “memory boxes” outside resident rooms. These are familiar belongings that help patients recognize their room more easily.
  • Use of Familiar Tasks and Roles: Just as Montessori education centers on relevant, real-world activities, caregivers might involve dementia patients in tasks that are familiar to them based on their past roles and expertise. This could include folding clothes, setting the table, or gardening tasks, which bring a sense of purpose, routine and familiarity.
  • Respect and Dignity: Echoing the Montessori ethos of respect for the individual, caregivers always ensure that they treat individuals with dementia with utmost respect and dignity, acknowledging their experiences, values, and desires even in the face of cognitive decline.
  • Role of the Caregiver as Observer and Guide: Drawing from the Montessori model of the teacher as a guide rather than a lecturer, dementia caregivers act as facilitators. Caregivers focus on enabling individuals to do as much as they can for themselves, while providing gentle guidance and support when needed. Through careful observation, caregivers are able to discern the needs, preferences, and abilities of the individual, and can adapt the environment and approach to meet these needs.
  • Encouraging Social Interaction: Similar to Montessori mixed-age classrooms, caregivers create opportunities for dementia patients to engage socially. This could involve group activities, shared meals, or simply arranging the environment in a way that promotes interaction, helping to nurture their sense of belonging and community. There are even some Montessori-based dementia programs that use an intergenerational model in building their community. There is evidence that social interaction is important and empowers healthy brain aging.

Outcomes for dementia patients using the Montessori method

Using Montessori methods for people living with dementia is an emerging area of inquiry, and because of this, the data is still emergent too. While several studies have been done, they may range in sample size and confidence levels. While some were done in an adult day health centers, others were done in long term care facilities. Although none of the data is definitive, there are some of the early findings that appear to promising:

  • Memory Recall: A limited study published in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing found that dementia patients participating in Montessori-style activities displayed improved engagement and participation. They were also found to have better memory recall.
  • Reduction in Agitation: Montessori programs have also been found to help reduce agitation in dementia patients, a common symptom of the condition. This was outlined in a study presented in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
  • Improved Motor Skills: Montessori activities that involve motor skills, such as sorting or folding, have been found to help maintain or improve these skills in dementia patients, according to an article from the Alzheimer’s Association.
  • Increase in Positive Behavior: Research from the International Psychogeriatrics found that the implementation of Montessori-based activities led to an increase in positive behaviors—such as engagement and interest—and a decrease in negative behaviors—such as aggression and agitation.
  • Improved Eating Habits:There is evidence to suggest that Montessori-based interventions can have a positive impact on the eating behavior of dementia patients. A study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that using Montessori methods, such as basic food preparation tasks and setting the table, can help increase patient self-feeding, improve dietary intake, and prolong independence in eating for these individuals. These methods also encouraged a sense of purpose, enjoyment and enhanced their overall dining experience.

Intergenerational Montessori-based activities

As you might recall, mixed-age groups are a hallmark of early education Montessori programs, and some practitioners are applying this same concept to care for dementia patients. The Montessori-based intergenerational program is gaining recognition as a beneficial approach in Montessori programs for dementia care. These programs bring together children or younger adults and people living with dementia, promoting positive interactions that can be enriching for both groups. Activities could range from shared arts and crafts sessions, storytelling, gardening tasks, or simply free play. And studies have shown that this kind of programming yields positive outcomes for dementia patients.

Montessori training & certification for staff and communities

To use Montessori programs in dementia care, memory care communities need to go through a certification process. Just like Montessori teachers, training begins with training and education for staff members which is provided by professionals well-versed in both the Montessori method and dementia care.

The training covers key principles, strategies, and techniques of the Montessori method and how they can be adapted to dementia care. Following the training, the communities then put into practice what they’ve learned under the supervision and guidance of trainers.

An evaluation or assessment phase ensures that the Montessori principles are being properly integrated into their dementia care programs and that they are positively affecting the quality of life of the residents. Once the communities can consistently demonstrate that the program has been successfully implemented in their care regimen in line with the standards outlined by the certification body, they are then certified as Montessori-based memory care providers. The goal is to ensure that the care provided embodies the core tenets of the Montessori approach; person-centered, empowering, and respectful to residents with dementia. If you’re considering a Montessori program for a loved one with dementia, be sure to ask about certification.

Montessori programs for dementia patients: a final word

The Montessori method presents an innovative and compassionate philosophy of care that promotes dignity, self-esteem, and mental well-being for people living with dementia. Initially reserved for early education, this approach has proved to be both versatile and effective.

The core of the Montessori method lies within empowering the individual. Whether in early education or dementia care, the approach fosters a sense of autonomy, promotes active engagement, and harnesses the power of individual strengths. It demonstrates that regardless of age or cognitive ability, everyone has the capacity to learn, grow, and retain their individuality.

Working with dementia can be challenging, but this practical and optimistic approach allows caregivers to create a meaningful impact in the lives of those dealing with this challenging condition. It’s a powerful reminder that every stage of life carries with it the potential for growth and discovery. With compassion, respect, and the right methodologies, we can make a difference in the face of dementia.

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