"The More You Do For Me, The More You Take From Me."

The Montessori Approach to Dementia Care, in Action at Rowntree Gardens

Rowntree Gardens

The room is filled with flowers and people. It’s a Wednesday, after all. 

Each week, the residents of the Rowntree Gardens Memory Care unit meet to arrange flowers. What started as a one-time project when staff member Patricia Perez brought in flowers left over from a family function has become a meaningful activity for women and men alike.

“They loved it so much that we decided to reach out to Trader Joe’s and see if they’d work with us,” says Perez, who is the Director of Memory Care for the Stanton, California-based organization. “Now they donate the flowers to us each week.”

Engaging residents’ senses is just one facet of the implementation of a Montessori approach to Dementia care. Creating opportunities for independence, connecting to a community, and drawing upon what a person can still do—instead of focusing on capabilities they’ve lost—are other objectives.

A September 2018 visit from Dr. Cameron Camp was a boost in the changes Perez and her team had already begun adopting. “We didn’t know to put a name to what we were doing,” she says, “I just knew I wanted to approach things differently. Dr. Camp taught us how to elevate our efforts to the next level.”

So what does this change in approach look like?

For the residents at Rowntree Gardens, it looks like a homey, comfortable environment, with curtains on the windows and walls painted a color they decided upon together. At mealtime, it means two fully cooked and plated dining options presented to diners, so they can see and smell exactly what they are choosing to eat, without being overwhelmed with too many choices. It means nametags for everyone and clear signage with instructions for residents and guests alike to help themselves to refreshments.

What’s more, there’s a renewed focus on helping families have a purposeful, meaningful visit by offering options for things to do together. “When their loved one doesn’t recognize them, families can feel defeated. You might hear, ‘I don’t know how to interact with my mother,’” Perez says.  Activities together can feel more fulfilling. There are books to read and learn together—like a lesson in how pizza was invented—plus sensory boxes containing tactile items like sand and water for those who can’t verbally communicate. 

Keeping residents engaged is a priority. A corner store is now available so they can “shop” using tickets they earn by participating in activities. And the staff is committed to connecting with residents on a more personal level. “Even if we are busy, we all make a point of spending time with them. This might mean taking someone for a walk or out to have ice cream in the courtyard,” she says.

People are responding to this new way of life. One Assisted Living resident had been taking daily anxiety medication. Since her move to the more structured environment in Memory Care, she has eliminated her need for it. Other residents have been able to maintain the same level of independence over a period of months.

Getting used to experiencing the Montessori method in action can be an adjustment for family and staff, Perez admits. “We remind families that the reason their mother or father is wiping down the tables is not because we do not have staff to do those tasks; it’s because he or she wants to contribute.”

As for staff, “It’s about changing the mindset and reminding them that it’s ok to take extra time with someone, that it’s not always about moving on to the next task,” she says. “But they find (this approach) rewarding. It gives them purpose as well, and they’re connecting on a different level. They genuinely enjoy coming to work.”

Perez is excited for what comes next. Without a doubt, obtaining an official Montessori certification is in her plan, hopefully within the year. Recently, she took a trip to Montessori-certified organization in Ohio to see what the future holds. “It was great to see in action many of the strategies we are doing already, and the impact they are making.”

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