The Montessori Method

One of the remaining strengths of those with memory impairment is emotional memory. Those memories or skills that elicit a strong positive or negative emotion often remain with us despite changes that can occur due to dementia and other cognitive losses. Another remaining strength of those with dementia is their ability to learn new things through procedural memory. Research also shows that those with memory loss are still able to utilize their senses – smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound.

Using principles from the Montessori Method, gardening is a therapeutic way to engage the senses, helping seniors facing memory loss to rediscover the world.

The Montessori Method has been around for a long time in the educational realm. More recently, these principles have been applied to persons with dementia and in the last decade is rapidly gaining traction in the senior living community. Providing the most effective care means maximizing opportunities for seniors to connect with the world in different ways than they did prior to their memory loss. Sensory experiences created through physical activities use strengths that remain to further personal growth while engaging residents in their environment.

Montessori based dementia programming provides ways to connect with preserved memories. Presenting a loved one with fresh flowers and an empty vase may give him a way to step out of isolation and into a beautiful spring day; the experience of putting flowers in the vase is enough to call forth a powerful memory of cutting fresh flowers. The sights, smells, textures are all reminiscent and a method that the person with cognitive loss can still appreciate and engage in.

The positive attitudes and personal touch that are hallmarks of Samaritas are found in this method, while providing seniors with memory loss a meaningful activity that is purposeful and enjoyable to their days.

Too often, seniors with dementia are placed in stationary, uninspiring activities to keep them safe. Yet, these same seniors are not engaged in ways that help them keep a toehold in the present. Activities such as unfolding and refolding a towel are not purposeful, only providing a task to complete with no benefit to the doer.

We at Samaritas believe in guiding those we serve toward finding their full potential and purpose, meaning and learning throughout their lives. Using the Montessori approach to re-engage motor memory, sensory identity provides a process seniors can enjoy and participate in.

Over the past year in our Senior Living communities, we have been implementing Montessori-inspired programs for memory-challenged residents. Many have started to narrate short stories, participate in discussion groups, and create meals to share with other residents. By telling stories and incorporating the use of props that stimulate the senses, residents can relate to moments from their past.

At this time of year, gardening is one activity that meets all these criteria. Safe, enclosed gardens for seniors with memory care are one way to engage older adults in meaningful activity, the beauty and benefits of nature, and prolong their sensory memories.

Residents participate in tending a herb garden. First we put hands in the dirt, see the seeds, smell the flowers, then cut them and arrange them on a table to enjoy during meals.

It’s a simple technique but, by thinking step by step, simple to complex, seniors engage in gross and fine motor skills, socialize, reminisce and build relationships.

It is our goal at Samaritas to provide opportunities for older adults with dementia to feel purposeful and find meaning as we share in life with them.

The more ways our residents connect with the world, the more their brains engage, which means more opportunities for enjoyment. 

Deedre Vriesman is Executive Director, Samaritas Senior Living, Grand Rapids

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