Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Montessori: Changing the Way We Think of Dementia

How many times have you heard these comments about people with dementia?:

"People with dementia can't learn new things."
"All you can expect him/her to do is sit and watch TV."
"Dementia patients can't contribute to society anymore."
"You can have a person with dementia do the same task over and over again because they never remember it anyway."

My family and I have been told all of these things about dementia. We have been told to put Mom in an adult daycare where they fold towels over and over again. In our hearts Dad and I just felt that this was not right. We knew there had to be something better out there. We knew Mom, and each person with dementia, is still a person who deserves dignity and respect and who has the ability to contribute to the world in a purposeful way. From the medical field though we were hearing the exact opposite.

Instinctively I knew that what the medical field was saying could not be what laid in store for Mom. In fact, my whole theology revolves around showing people dignity and respect and helping people find purpose and meaning in their lives. With those two things, people feel happy, whole, and find their connection to that which is greater than themselves (God, the Universe, etc...). What people were saying about Mom went against my theology and my understanding of the world. I knew it couldn't be true, but had no proof until this week.
Dr. Maria Montessori 1870-1952

For two days Dad, Mom's caregiver, and I attended a Montessori-based dementia training with the Center for Applied Research in Dementia with Dr. Cameron Camp. This training showed me that we can help Mom have a wonderful and meaningful life even with her Lewy Body Dementia. What annoys me is that I did not see it before.

I went to a Montessori school until eighth grade and I know that is where the core of my belief system came from. I have preached about Dr. Maria Montessori and how her values are in line with Unitarian Universalism. My son goes to a Montessori school. Montessori has been a part of my life forever, yet I also live in a world which drills it into our heads the belief that people can't learn for themselves and they have no value if they are not fast, brilliant, and controllable. After eighth grade, I learned to live in this system because I had to, but I lost some of myself along the way. That's why I didn't notice that if I just applied Montessori principles to life, we could take care of Mom much better.

Dr. Camp taught us:
"People with dementia can learn new things."
"You can expect him/her to participate in activities they enjoy every day."
"Dementia patients contribute amazing things to society when we give them the chance."
"Never have a person with dementia do busywork, like folding towels all day, that does not honor their worth and dignity."

You will see many blog posts in the future about the Montessori method and how we will use it in our care with Mom and with the participants in our weekly dementia program. Right now I am just so excited to be reminded of how Montessori changes lives. As a person with mental illness, I know the Montessori teachings were what enabled me to believe in myself and figure out how to use my strengths to contribute to the world. Without it I would have only focused on what I can't do. Forgetting about the core Montessori teachings meant that we were only focusing on what Mom can't do. Well, no more. Mom has lots of great things ahead of her thanks to Dr. Camp and his colleagues who have brought Montessori to people of all ages. I am glad now I can return to my parents the gift of Montessori that my Mom and Dad gave me.


Rev. Katie


  1. My husband just feels one disability--short-term memory. He requested a clipboard with a daily schedule where he checks off his daily activities. That clipboard helps him "isolate the difficulty", a Montessori principle.

    1. Hi NewKid,
      What a great idea he came up with. This was one of the suggestions at the training that we will use with Mom. She is always looking at the calendar and getting frustrated. Sounds wonderful. I look forward to hearing any of your other ideas as they come up. Thanks for reading the blog.

    2. Just go to the blog, Plant City Lady and Friends, for my ideas.

      Blessings, Pastor Katie!

  2. I came to caregiving for my mother directly from teaching Lower El in a public Montessori school. It was immediately apparent to me that much of what I did in my classroom was applicable with her. I always assume that she can learn, even though it takes longer and is inconsistent. Some of the concrete changes we've made are picture/word cards using photos so she will know what's behind closed doors, both rooms and cupboards. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. She does practical life tasks like sweeping, food chopping and stirring, hanging and taking down clothes outside. We tidy her room together, we watch and discuss the birds at the feeders, and look them up in the bird books. I read her a chapter of a book we both enjoy every night at bedtime. I don't always know how these, and the many other things we do, affect her. But I do know how they affect me ---- less frustration, less sadness, more connection and joy.