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How the Montessori Approach to Dementia Helps People Live High-Quality Lives

An elderly woman plays with a wood bead puzzle toy

At The Ridge, we’re not only committed to creating a superior lifestyle, we’re dedicated to seeking out and employing cutting-edge methods in health care for our residents as well. As an example, within the memory care community at The Ridge Pinehurst, we’ve embraced many of the tenets of the Montessori Approach to Dementia, an innovative memory care method gaining popularity not only in the United States, but also in Canada, Australia, and most recently the UK.

Two older women smile as they sit and hold hands

What Is the Montessori Approach to Dementia?

The original Montessori Method was developed in the 1990s as an innovative teaching system for elementary-age children and is still widely used today. It’s based on the premise that children learn best when they are challenged to perform a little beyond their comfort zone — not so much that they get frustrated and give up, but enough that they have opportunity to improve and succeed by small steps.

Dr. Cameron Camp, a psychologist in applied gerontology, found that the same thinking can be applied to people with dementia. Rather than existing in a world where aides and nurses make all life decisions for their patients, the Montessori Approach to Dementia focuses on giving life decisions back to the individual whenever possible.

Dr. Camp summarizes it this way: “How can we connect with the person who is still here?” One answer, he says is to help reengage the types of memory that are spared by dementia, including motor memory such as how to dress and how to eat. Ultimately, the idea is to help dementia patients, while it’s still possible and for as long as possible, retain their dignity, humanity and sense of independence.

What Can Seniors with Dementia Do for Themselves?

Central to the Montessori Approach to Dementia is helping to preserve a person’s individuality. Rather than defining all people with dementia as having one set of needs and abilities (and disabilities), the Montessori Method recognizes each one as unique. What can we accomplish? What brings us joy? How do we need assistance? 

Identifying what each individual is capable of requires extra creativity and attention on the part of team members — but studies show it’s well worth the effort. In 2006, a report prepared for the District of Columbia Office on Aging found people with memory loss responded better to Montessori-based activities, with increased levels of engagement and ability to handle difficult tasks, than to non-Montessori-based activities.

A senior living staff member helps an elderly women pick out her outfit

At The Ridge Pinehurst, our memory care community is dedicated to respecting individuality. As an example, we offer flexible dining times to allow residents to eat when they choose, rather than on a set schedule; residents are also encouraged to choose what time they want to go to bed and wake up, and how they want to dress. And we encourage them to walk rather than being wheeled everywhere — strategies that foster positive outcomes. As Lynne Phair, an independent nurse adviser in the UK explained in an interview, “The Montessori philosophy is about enabling people, whereas traditionally if a nurse thinks you need something, they’ll do it for you.”

A senior man wearing headphones watches something on an iPad

As part of our innovative approach to dementia care, The Ridge Pinehurst also uses music therapy. Piping vintage music into dementia neighborhoods is a common practice, but The Ridge Pinehurst chose to become a certified MUSIC & MEMORY® community. Through this national initiative, residents enjoy personalized playlists on iPods or other digital devices, curated with the input of close family and friends.

Exercises to Boost Different Types of Memory

Humans possess two types of critical memory — declarative memory (the facts we learn like dates and names), and procedural memory (such as knowing how to eat and dress). Employing Montessori-based dementia activities in long-term care can help residents relearn or delay the loss of their declarative and procedural memory skills. The staff might, for example, work with a resident on catching and throwing a ball to maintain physical strength, or help break down the act of dressing into small repeatable tasks to help someone with memory problems succeed in dressing themselves.

For many people with dementia, simply being asked to fold towels or napkins or help with stirring ingredients is not only stimulating, but it also helps them achieve small successes and feel valued. “Treasure hunts” are also a popular relearning game. A resident is given a slotted spoon and encouraged to dig through a bowl of rice for buried objects. The act of using the spoon to dig is actually helping their brain relearn the motor skills necessary to feed yourself.

Senior women at The Ridge Cottonwood are arranging fresh flowers into display pieces

Watch the Webinar on The Montessori Method

Watch our recorded webinar, “Living Well With Memory Loss: Focusing on Ability,” to learn more about how the Montessori Method helps aging seniors live high quality lives. 

Small Steps that Make a Big Difference

All over the world, in communities like The Ridge Pinehurst, the care paradigm for seniors with dementia is shifting in positive, meaningful ways. Management and staff are seeing how over-caring for residents can actually cause excess disability and reduce self-sufficiency, not to mention negatively affect self-esteem. Wheeling someone to the dining room may make life easier for an aide, but it may be to the detriment of an individual still able to walk themselves. 

Senior living communities like The Ridge Pinehurst who’ve adopted the Montessori Approach to Dementia are leading the way toward fostering greater independence for as long as possible among residents dealing with memory loss. Learn more about our approaches to high-quality memory care by exploring a  day in the life of what it’s like living in our memory care communities and how we use MUSIC & MEMORY® programming and the Montessori Approach to Dementia to enhance daily life.