Montessori philosophy, based on the principles of free choice and purposeful activity, has historically been focused on children’s education. However, its essential principles and practices are increasingly seen as critical to enhancing the lives of the older adults in our care. Central to both the Montessori philosophy and person-centered care are the core values of respect for the individual, the importance of knowing the person deeply, seeking and honoring the elder’s preferences over all aspects of his or her daily life, and creating a supportive environment that allows for continued participation in familiar and preferred activities, inside and outside.
In a Montessori community for elders, persons with a wide range of abilities work both individually and collaboratively on an array of activities from which they are free to choose. Elders have freedom to move within the community and to engage in household roles and responsibilities, with guidance as needed by trained staff. The focus is on the well-being of the whole person, including physical, spiritual, social, mental, and emotional needs. Communities offer occasions for new learning, religious practices, meditation, art, music, exercise, and so forth. In addition, there are opportunities for interaction with children, friends, family, and groups outside of the care community.
What follows is a brief description of each of the essential features of a Montessori community for elders and those with dementia.
The prepared environment is designed to facilitate maximum independence and exploration by all members of the community. Hands-on adult activities and materials are accessible to elders 24 hours a day. This allows elders to feel ownership of their space, encouraging participation in care of the community.
Freedom of Movement
Elders choose where to sit and what to work on, with guidance or assistance as needed from trained care partners. They are encouraged to move about the environment rather than remaining seated or in one place all day. This freedom of movement helps elders to maintain balance, fine and gross motor skills, and overall healthy functioning of the body’s systems.
Elders work with both specially designed materials and everyday household items. Activities are hands-on and often involve movement and sensory stimulation. Each activity has multiple purposes. These may include strengthening gross or fine motor skills, maintaining hand-eye coordination, developing sustained attention on a task, or providing sensory stimulation. The purpose of an activity may also be artistic expression, enjoyment, or the satisfaction that comes from making a meaningful contribution to the community.
Humans are born with an intrinsic desire to explore and learn. Rather than focusing on keeping elders “busy,” the prepared environment provides opportunities for choice, independence, and meaningful engagement. When elders are free to follow their interests and meet their own needs, they feel fulfilled rather than bored.
With regard to elders, we think of concentration as joyful engagement in work that one finds satisfying. Care partners do not interrupt elders’ concentration when they are engaged in meaningful activity and only offer assistance when it is needed.
Humans are naturally driven toward achieving independence. Therefore, a Montessori prepared environment is set up to facilitate maximum independence for elders. Care partners invite them to engage in daily tasks (either independently or in partnership) rather than completing these tasks for them.
Mixed Abilities of Individuals
Elders of different abilities work together, form friendships, and help each other in a supportive community. Peer collaboration is encouraged; elders share their strengths with others who need more support in those areas. Rather than staff taking over all le