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Using Montessori to Treat Dementia

Friday, August 27, 2004 at 4:00 PM

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In the last decade or so, much attention has been paid to the potential for curing Alzheimer's disease - especially since the late President Ronald Reagan disclosed he was afflicted with this devastating terminal illness. A cure has yet to be found, although medications have been developed to slow its progress. But while medical research continues, non-medical methods of dealing with dementia are also emerging. ideastream's Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz reports on one program developed here in Cleveland that uses educational principles pioneered a century ago.

In the early 1900s, Maria Montessori developed a highly individualized approach to educating children that is now used in schools throughout the world. But it’s probably safe to say she never foresaw her method being used in nursing homes.

Samantha Porter: This is homemade PCB piping that I painted. Does it go over here or over there?

Resident 1: Over there.

In a small activity room at Beachwood’s Menorah Park Center for Senior Living, Samantha Porter is helping several elderly women on individual projects. One woman sorts yellow and blue pipes into separate piles. Another places small squares of wood into a box with slots labeled for various kinds of objects.

Samantha Porter: If you see there’s animal, toy, plant… and on the piece of wood there’s a picture of a plant. And I would give her a picture and she would put it in the correct category. What’s the ball?

Resident 2: Toy… animal… bear…

Such activities are the work of Cameron Camp, a senior research scientist at Menorah Park. Back in the 1980s, when Camp’s children began attending a Montessori school, he got the idea that the methods used to teach his kids could be modified to help people with dementia. One of the main tenets of this approach is that activities must be failure-free.

Cameron Camp: We don’t ever want to put a person with dementia in situations where they would fail, but we have to put them in situations where they can succeed.

Pam Nicholson: I don’t like when somebody tells me that I’ve done something wrong. So how do you think a resident might feel if you said, “Oh, that’s not right.”

Pam Nicholson is Activities Director at Menorah Park.

Pam Nicholson: So that’s why Montessori is so wonderful, because however the resident utilizes an object or participates in a program, it’s wonderful because they’re participating.

True to the Montessori model, Camp’s approach is also heavily based on the individuality of each person. And it’s designed to build on the skills they retain.

Cameron Camp: Can they hold things? Can they match? Can they categorize?.

Samantha Porter: This is a treasure hunt, we call it. They use sensory stimulation by putting their hands in the popcorn and finding different coins and putting them on the circles.

These activities are intended to help people with dementia retain fine motor skills, maybe some cognitive function. But you might wonder whether some residents would be insulted by activities like the treasure hunt. Li-Chan Lin is a nursing professor at Taiwan’s National Yang-Ming University. She’s been studying Cameron Camp’s program for possible use in Taiwan. Lin says some elderly people don’t respond well to the Montessori method. But, according to Lin, they are in the minority.

Li-Chan Lin: Some of them don’t like do it, it’s true. But in my study I found out most of them can involve. Because when you did this kind of activity, you also respect them, their past.

Respecting a resident’s past could mean finding out what they did for a living. According to Camp, this was key in the case of a former plumber. The man refused to participate in activities until Camp brought him plumbing parts and asked for his help labeling them.

Cameron Camp: Or you put a 3-year-old boy in front of him with a screwdriver, and all of the sudden it’s “Righty tighty, lefty loosey; righty tighty, lefty loosey. You can’t go wrong if you remember this.”

Camp travels extensively talking about his Montessori program for people with dementia. In recent years, his program has made its way across the country and around the world. Li-Chan Lin is working on a Chinese translation. The program is already available in Japanese. And plans are in the works for translations into Spanish and Turkish.

Still, Camp says some people have trouble believing that people with dementia can still learn. Camp says sometimes he has to work a miracle to convince people of the usefulness of the Montessori program. And that’s what he says he did on a nursing home visit once, when he asked a resident with dementia to read aloud for him.

Cameron Camp: And the woman read the entire page out clear as a bell. The staff member next to her startled, said “I didn’t even know she could talk.” That’s a miracle.

Pam Nicholson says Montessori has made her think differently about all the activities she develops. She says she now thinks about how to make them multi-faceted, and suitable for people at various levels of ability. And it’s strengthened her belief that nursing home residents can and should have quality of life for whatever time they have left.

Pam Nicholson: I’m going to do everything I can to make them happy and smile and live out their last days, last years, last months, as best as they possibly can.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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