Practice — practice — practice! This was a kind of motto of mine as a young girl rehearsing for an upcoming piano recital. Little did I understand at the time that my music lessons and practice sessions were an effective way of developing “muscle memory.”
Wikipedia defines muscle memory as “… a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for the task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.” Muscle memory works when you drive a car, ride a bike, eat, tie your shoelaces, type on a keyboard, play a musical instrument, etc.
I recently came across two websites that discuss ways to encourage persons with dementia to exercise their muscle memories and focus on what they still can do. Both sites describe a person-centered Montessori approach. Based upon successful methods that were used by Dr. Maria Montessori, this approach attempts to keep a person as independent for as long as possible by focusing on tasks and habits related to procedural memory.
To digress for a moment, Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) became the first female doctor in Italy in the 19th century. She was a physician, educator, and innovator. She worked with children with intellectual disabilities and developed a method to teach them to read and write. By 1910, her philosophy and method of teaching and nurturing youngsters was applied to students in mainstream schools. The emphasis is placed on self-determination and self-realization. As Dr. Montessori puts it herself, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” Her teaching methods are still in use today in Montessori schools all over the world.
How does all this apply to care of our loved ones? Persons with Alzheimer’s and dementia are often confronted with what they can no longer do, such as routine activities of daily living. They may struggle with simple tasks like dressing themselves or brushing their teeth. The key principles of the Montessori method can give you, the caregiver, an understanding of how better to focus on your loved one’s capabilities, engaging them in meaningful interactions and helping them remain as independent for as long as possible.
Alzheimer’s Australia, an advocacy agency, in conjunction with Monash University in Melbourne, Victoria, has developed a wonderful resource, “Relate, Motivate, Appreciate,” that details this person-centered approach. (See link below.) Here is a summary of the twelve key Montessori principles of engagement, as listed in this resource:
- The activity should have a sense of purpose and capture the person’s interest.
- Always invite them to participate.
- Offer a choice whenever possible.
- Talk less. Demonstrate more.
- Physical skills; focus on what they can do.
- Match your speed with the person you are caring for. In other words, slow down!
- Use visual hints, cues, or templates.
- Give them something to hold.
- Go from simple tasks to more complex ones.
- Break the task down into steps. Make it easier to follow.
- To end, ask, “Did you enjoy doing this?” and “Would you like to do this again?”
- There is no right or wrong. Think engagement.
I wish I had been aware of this approach when I was caring for my mother. At times I felt it was hit and miss when trying to engage her and keep her active. Be flexible and willing to adapt to what your loved one is able to do on a daily basis, as each day may be different. I hope you will share your experiences of your attempts to help your loved one regain control of aspects of their life and retain their abilities for as long as possible.
In Part 2 of this topic (an upcoming blog), I will delve further into four of the principles listed above, and detail specific things you can do in helping your loved one exercise their memory muscle.
Oh, and by the way, I never became a world class pianist, but I still play the piano for my own enjoyment and relaxation, albeit this memory muscle is a little “stiff!”
I wish you peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!
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Here is the link to a 72-page booklet developed by Alzheimer’s Australia, in conjunction with Monash University: http://qualitydementiacare.org.au/wp-content/uploads/AlzheimersAustralia_Montessori_Resource_WEB.pdf.
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Another website that details the Montessori methods for dementia care is: http://keepingbusy.com/learning-center/montessori-principles-for-dementia/.
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The Dementia Action Alliance has a sixteen-minute video, “Person-Centered Matters, Making Life Better for Someone Living with Dementia.” This video highlights the positive aspects about helping people live fully with dementia, told through the stories of five people living with the condition at various stages. You can watch it by going to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5R3idi0e1eg.
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