Seniors’ Health: Montessori-based program helps seniors with dementia

Canadian researchers adapt childhood education methods for use in people with Alzheimer’s disease

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People with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are leading better lives thanks to a program based on the principles of child development pioneer Maria Montessori.

The Montessori-based program not only improves the quality of life of people experiencing memory loss but enhances their relationships with those around them, according to researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, was an educator who pioneered a method of learning that saw children achieve exceptional academic success even though they were labelled mentally challenged. Their success stemmed from the way they were taught in a “prepared environment” with a variety of sensory materials and the chance to progress at their own pace.

Similarly, the Montessori program at McMaster uses learning and rehabilitation principles that include guided repetition, tasks broken down into small components and the opportunity for individuals to progress at their own rate from simple to more complex tasks. It is based on work led by Dr. Cameron Camp, senior research scientist at the Myers Research Institute in Cleveland.

Gail Elliot, assistant director at McMaster’s Centre for Gerontological Studies, who is adapting Camp’s research to Ontario, says the Montessori program circumvents the mental shortcomings associated with dementia.

For example, people with memory loss can be taught to do tasks they seem to have forgotten — such as buttering a piece of bread or drinking a glass of water — and learning these skills makes them more self-sufficient. Other activities include exercises such as scooping golf balls then progressing to smaller objects so a person may eventually scoop ice cream on their own. Ultimately, these activities enhance the skills people with dementia need to perform basic daily routines like feeding themselves, preparing simple meals, dressing themselves and participating in recreational activities.

The foundation of Montessori-based programming is that it engages people and enhances their skills by using familiar, everyday items in activities that incorporate the patient’s past. If a person worked as a plumber, for example, pipes and tools could be used in an activity, which would be meaningful to that person.

McMaster is developing a national certification program in the Montessori-based method and expects to launch it by the end of 2007.