For more than 100 years, Dr. Maria Montessori’s Montessori Method of Education has been practiced by educators all over the world. The approach teaches children based on their level of ability, rather than adhering to a strict curriculum. In an ideal Montessori learning environment, students learn at their own pace and are given the freedom to move about the classroom and experience lessons through thoughtfully prepared, developmentally appropriate activities.
A growing body of research suggests Montessori’s method of experiential learning can be applied to people with dementia, with positive results. Gail Elliot, a gerontologist and dementia specialist in Burlington, Ont., has taken Montessori’s idea of “preparing the environment” and combined it with her own lifetime of multidisciplinary research to develop a progressive approach to addressing the needs of people with dementia.
“This is a multidisciplinary approach that is non-pharmacological, and it’s person-centred,” Elliot says. “We’re exposing abilities, exposing potential, and helping people to be the best they can be.”
Elliot is the founder and CEO of DementiAbility Enterprises Inc., which teaches DementiAbility Methods: The Montessori Way via workshops, books and online resources. Widely respected as a leading expert in the field of aging, she retired from McMaster University in 2012 to focus specifically on dementia education. She is also one of many experts inspired by the work of Dr. Cameron Camp, a U.S.-based gerontologist who first connected Montessori methods with dementia care in the 1990s.
Elliot says a person with dementia may not have forgotten how to do something completely, but they may not remember how to find things or how to do things in the right order. Preparing the environment by labelling items with arrows or pictures can work to “cue” the person to remember the order of doing things such as getting dressed or going to the bathroom.
“There’s a lot of memory in the spared capacity domain called procedural memory that we can use to our benefit when working with someone with dementia,” Elliot says. “[Through DementiAbility Methods: the Montessori Way], we can often teach people and reteach people to remember certain things.”
Giving a person with dementia a specific activity or task can also uncover their true abilities, Elliot says. It can be as simple as asking them to help fold a load of laundry that sits in the same spot each day. Over time, you may see that person instinctively fold and sort the laundry unprompted, which can lead to them taking up more tasks.
“You have to support and enrich their daily lives by giving them things to do that add meaning, social connection, joy and purpose to each day,” she says. “It is important to note that most people with dementia do not have a starter button — they need us to invite them to help, or participate in activities, until routines and triggers can be used to initiate the action. Abilities are frequently lost not because of dementia, but because of disuse. So it’s important to adapt activities to the abilities of the individuals. Ultimately, the goal is to expose abilities, enhance independence and enrich lives.” [ ]
For more information on the DementiAbility methods, Elliot suggests checking out the free downloadable resources on her website: DementiAbility.com. A good starting point for better understanding a person’s dementia is the Memory Book, a free PowerPoint slide show you can print and then fill out with the person who has dementia.