Montessori Method for Alzheimer’s & Dementia: How it Works at Home and in Assisted Living

Last Updated: April 01, 2020


What Is the Montessori Method for Dementia Care?

The “Montessori Method” (MM) of education was invented in 1897 for special-needs children, but has since gone mainstream and is even being used to help manage the symptoms of older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The “Montessori Method” is anchored in the following ideas:

– Change the environment to suit the individual
– Allow freedom within a structure
– Respect a person’s personality and history
– Individuals benefit by serving a community

Think about it this way: People with dementia don’t want to be bossed around; like most of us, they want to be useful and to contribute. The Montessori Method reduces feelings of loneliness, boredom, and apathy by engaging with someone’s skills in a productive way. If your loved one helps prepare a meal or helps clean, the result can be a self-esteem boost that reduces anxiety and other symptoms common for people in every stage of dementia. It may take patience on your part, but by encouraging help as much as it can be provided, you both engage the person and reward the effort.

Under the Montessori Method, a person’s interests are targeted. Because long-term memories, like learned skills from work or even from childhood, are the last to go away in the late stages of dementia, MM encourages learning about someone’s history and then tailoring games and activities to those longer-term memories. Someone who used to be handy around the house can be encouraged to use tools (within safe limits). If your loved one used to farm, then digging in dirt and planting seeds will provide a brain boost.

  Did You Know? Some home care agencies and assisted living residences use the Montessori Method in their caregiving. Get help finding home care or memory care providers that do.  

Tailoring games to an individual makes the time spent playing more productive for the brain by engaging those old memories. Matching words with pictures is a good activity to encourage thinking in people with middle- to late-stage dementia, but if your loved one used to like cars, you might have more success matching names of cars to their photographs. More basically, your loved one might match colors to cars that are that color.

Knowing their interests can also help use other senses to spark long-term memories and stimulate the brain, for benefits including reduced anxiety and more focus. The mere act of touching metal tools might boost the mood of someone who used to be handy around the house. Smelling flowers is incredibly beneficial for a person who once kept a garden. And almost everyone has songs they loved when they were young, so finding the right music to play for your loved one can also use their individual interests to offer therapeutic stimulation.

It might seem obvious, but MM also finds benefits in connecting with someone respectfully. A caregiver who practices these principles will always kneel to get on their loved one’s level when speaking, instead of literally “looking down” on them.


How Effective Is It?

Seniors with dementia engage deeper with activities that are based in the Montessori Method, and the MM has also been shown to improve behavior and lower anxiety. In adult day care, one study showed, people who participated in non-MM activities like bingo and group exercise disengaged over time, and their difficulty with the task increased. This was not because their conditions worsened. Measured impairment remained stable throughout the sixth months of this study and, significantly, seniors who participated in MM-based activities were more actively engaged and did not find the tasks becoming more difficult as days and weeks passed. Groups engaging in non-MM activities, however, disengaged over time and also found the activities increasingly hard to do.

Also important was the level of helping offered by seniors participating in MM activities. The study found that when people with dementia are doing individualized activities in a group context they actually help each other more, talking and interacting more, than when they’re all doing a non- Montessori activity together. A group of seniors playing bingo might not speak at all, but if everyone has an individualized task that reminds them of their youth they’ll engage socially.


Symptoms Addressed

Montessori Method activities have been shown to help with these symptoms for people with dementia:
– Anxiety
– Agitation
– Aggression
– Withdrawal

Further, in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, MM-based activities can slow the progression of symptoms. So someone who is becoming more agitated over time might find that they are overall more calm after spending time practicing these principles.


Types of Dementia Impacted

Montessori-Method activities can benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease and other similar dementias. Alzheimer’s is by far the most common, and the benefits of MM include improved mood and slower memory decline. These are notable for these illnesses:

– Vascular dementia: Though memory loss is less of an issue than in Alzheimer’s, people with vascular dementia experience mood problems including depression and aggravation, and an MM approach can help.
– Lewy Body dementia: Memory loss and confusion symptoms can be helped with the MM approach.
– Frontotemporal dementia: Also not a disease with memory loss as a major symptom, but MM activities can benefit the behavior and personality problems that are common.
– Parkinson’s disease with dementia: Anxiety, depression, and memory loss may all be improved with MM activities.
– Huntington’s disease: This afflicts younger people generally, but strong changes to mood and social withdrawal may be improved if activities are more personalized.


How At-Home Caregivers Can Apply These Techniques?

The Montessori Method can be a huge help for caregivers at home. Just as an increasing number of assisted living and memory care residences (see below) are seeing the benefits of these techniques, stay-at-home full-time caregivers of loved ones with dementia should consider adopting the MM model.

Planning activities specifically for the individual can make someone with dementia more engaged during those activities. A caregiver who decides to use this approach must do some work getting to know the history of their loved one: Learn what their jobs, hobbies, and interests were. What was a favorite sport or song? If constructive activities are to be built around who a person was before the disease, that means caregivers must become like journalists or researchers, digging into the past to find which objects or activities might spark those old memories and give the brain a boost.

  Get help finding in-home care providers that practice the Montessori Method as caregivers.  Start here.

It’s a good idea to keep a kit of treasured items, things that may tie your loved one to a fonder time before dementia. Put old photographs, collectibles, heirlooms, and anything else personal into the kit.

Remember that an important part of the Montessori Method is helping in the community. This “community” could be as simple as your own home, but extends outward to family, neighbors, friends, and beyond. Instead of giving your loved one a brain game on an iPad, see how much help she can give around the house, cleaning or getting ready for a meal. Also try these tips:

– Rather than repeating or reminding your loved one every day to do something, keep a large calendar with tasks planned ahead of time. Eventually, your loved one will go to the calendar without being reminded.
– Ask for help folding laundry, drying dishes, or with any other task that may be simple and useful around the home.
– When preparing meals, have your loved one do as much to help as possible. Or keep dry ingredients around, food that doesn’t make a mess, that can be “played with” to spark memories of cooking.
– Encourage storytelling, and write down what your loved one says. If possible, have her read the story back. Reading to a grandchild creates a family history.
– Reading aloud to anyone, but especially a relative, can make a person with dementia feel useful. Try letters, news articles, or short stories.
– Sorting games can be based on old interests. If your loved one liked gardening or cars, you can have them match colors to flowers or classic automobiles.
– In advanced stages of dementia, playing with dolls—having a tea party or dressing the doll up—can be a useful exercise for engagement.

Stimulating the senses is another important part of the Montessori Method. Aroma therapy can engage someone’s brain when they smell something like flowers, freshly cut grass, or a scented candle. Music therapy taps older memories, and stimulates parts of the brain that dementia can’t touch. Do some research to find old songs your loved one liked, to listen to or even sing together. (If you don’t know what song to play, find out what was popular on the radio when your loved one was around 17 or 18.)

And always treat your loved one like an individual who deserves respect. Lower yourself to meet their gaze when speaking, instead of looking down. Practice patience and sympathy.


Montessori Method in Assisted Living and Memory Care

Assisted living and memory care communities for older adults with dementia (who can no longer be cared for at home) are increasingly using the Montessori Method to engage their residents with activities and practices that benefit their brain health and overall well-being. It is imperative in these communities that residents do not feel bored or unused, and the Montessori Method is proven to keep them more engaged. Further, studies have shown that MM-model memory care communities saw “significant behavior changes” and decreased usage of antipsychotic and sedative medications. Staff in these homes get to know their residents better, and families are more satisfied with how their loved ones are cared for.

The benefits include slowing the rate of memory decline and reducing anxiety and moodiness. More specifically, people with dementia in these homes have better eating habits and can feed themselves with less assistance. Interestingly, when seniors work in the same room on projects that are personalized based on their interests, they’re more likely to engage with each other (socialization) than when they’re all participating in more standard activities like bingo or group exercise.

  Get help finding memory care residences that practice the Montessori Method.

In almost every state, assisted living and memory care residences (memory care is also called “Alzheimer’s care” and “dementia care”) are required to create a personalized service plan for every resident. This plan is the framework for how your loved one is treated, and should be updated regularly based on health and other issues. If a residence uses the MM, this service plan becomes a more informed and useful document. Research into a person’s personality, job history, family, interests and hobbies informs how they will be cared for, and staff in a Montessori-style residence will use what makes a person unique to develop activities, and to communicate in a way that encourages engagement. There might seem to be less structure in these residences, as the MM encourages freedom and choice, but residents who feel less controlled (or “bossed around”) are likely to participate more.

Assisted living or memory care homes that practice MM will do the following:
– Determine what level of independence is appropriate for each resident and encourage freedom to that level
– Have each person contribute to the residence by utilizing personal skills (like cooking, storytelling, cleaning, mail delivery, etc.)
– Change the environments to be personalized, rather than consistent with an overall pattern for the residence.

No matter which state you live in, free help is available to find a quality memory care or assisted living home. Click here. As you evaluate where your loved one should live, remember to ask about the Montessori Method. Every home is unique, and if MM practices are what you’re looking for, it’s important to begin the process of finding an elder care home as soon as possible, and asking the right questions.