5 Reasons Montessori Methods Work for People with Dementia: Montessori Education Week 2017
The last week in February is always Montessori Education Week. This year we celebrate 110 years of Montessori education!
To honor Montessori Education Week, I would like to go over five main reasons why Montessori methods work for people with dementia.
5 Reasons Montessori Methods Work for People with Dementia
See the person, not the illness. Dr. Montessori always saw children as unique individuals. When she was told a child was “deficient” and “un-teachable”, she did not define that child by this assessment of them. Instead, she focused on each child’s abilities and interests and used those in order to teach them. Society often sees people with dementia as an illness and we forget to look at their abilities, needs, and interests. When we use Montessori methods, it is required that we focus on the abilities that remain and work with those, rather than defining a person by abilities that they have lost. This means we create activities and daily roles that the person can participate in rather than assuming all they can do is sit in front of a TV. Being left in front of a TV all day causes boredom, which results in challenging behaviors in people with dementia.
Individuals have a place in the Universe and their life has meaning and purpose. Dr. Montessori taught Cosmic Education. As Michael and D’Neil Duffy say in their book “Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom”: “The goal of Cosmic Education is to guide the child toward an initial examination of the question ‘Who am I?’… The child’s answers are the beginning of a search for an identity, something to define who the child really is as member of the human species and as an individual apart from everyone else in the world.” (p. 4-5) This process of Cosmic Education also helps children discover their “cosmic task,” or where do they fit in this vast Universe and what role do they play in it? Far too often society treats people with dementia as if they have no meaning and purpose in life, no cosmic task. In Montessori based dementia care, we do not believe that. We maintain a person’s roles and identity throughout the full course of their life with dementia. Identity and belonging are key factors in happiness and maintaining a good quality of life. No one wants to be treated as if they do not contribute to the world around them or like they have no independence.
Care partners (a.k.a. caregivers) are guides. Dr. Montessori saw teachers as guides who help children learn rather than teachers who give information to children. For example, when a Montessori teacher presents a lesson to the class, the teacher may present the lesson in complete silence and then invite the child to use the materials in the lesson just like the teacher used them. This means that the teacher allows the child to do as much of the work on their own as possible and they will guide the child through the steps that the child is struggling with, rather than just give the child information to repeat back to the teacher. When we use Montessori methods to help a person with dementia, we are their guides. We set up tasks for them in a way that they can do them on their own as much as possible and then where they struggle, we guide them by showing them the step and inviting them to follow what we are doing. For example, a person with dementia whom their family members claim can no longer cook, can cook when they have someone to guide them in an accessible manner.
Preparing the environment for success. Dr. Montessori prepared the learning environment for her children so that they could function to the best of their ability, as independently as possible. When we look closely at the environment of a person with dementia, we can prepare that environment for success. Even something as simple as taking the doors off the kitchen cabinets can allow a person with dementia to take out and put away their own dishes again.
Behavior is a form of communication.™ When Dr. Montessori worked with a child that seemed to be exhibiting challenging behavior, she never blamed the child or assumed that the behavior was happening due to purposeful manipulation or that is “just the way the child is.” She knew there was always a reason for behavior and it was the teacher’s task to discover what the reason might be and address it. When a person with dementia exhibits challenging behaviors, we do not assume the behavior is happening because a person has dementia. There is an unmet need there that needs to be discovered and accommodated for if we are going to help the person with dementia function well. For example, we could assume that a person with dementia that hits a care partner hits just because they have dementia. If we look closer though, we may see that the person is hitting because they do not understand why someone is taking their shirt off during undressing. They may be hitting because they are bored and feel like no one cares. They may be hitting because they think someone has kidnapped them because they are in a place they do not recognize. There are ways to lessen this behavior in any one of these situations. For example, someone who lives in a place they do not recognize may need a memory aid (often a book with simple pictures and sentences that shows them where they live, who their friends are, etc… that can be brought to the person every time they feel they are living in a place they do not know.) By using Montessori methods, we commit to discovering the need and addressing it as best we can to decrease challenging behaviors. We do not punish, manipulate, or give punitive punishments to a person with dementia. We help and we guide.Society often sees people with dementia as an illness and we forget to look at their abilities, needs, and interests. When we use Montessori methods, it is required that we focus on the abilities that remain and work with those, rather than defining a person by abilities that they have lost. This means we create activities and daily roles that the person can participate in rather than assuming all they can do is sit in front of a TV. Being left in front of a TV all day causes boredom, which results in challenging behaviors in people with dementia.
Montessori methods increase quality of life not only for the person with dementia, but also for their care partners. These five concepts ensure that needs are being met, life is as accessible as possible, and roles and identity are maintained. This leads to less challenging behaviors, more independence, more joy, and a smoother rhythm to daily life.
If you want to learn more about how to implement Montessori methods into dementia care with your loved one or in your care community, please contact me through the contact form on the right side of this page.
Rev. Katie Norris