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Montessori for nursing homes

CMU master’s student to extend faculty member’s research to local facilities

Contact: Gary H. Piatek


​After Delainey Smyth saw her beloved great-grandmother thrive in a nursing home, she decided she would do her best to ensure that all patients with dementia have a similar experience.

Now, an education method many associate with early childhood learning is giving her that opportunity.

The first year speech-language pathology master's degree student is expanding on collaborative research that included Central Michigan University at a Grand Rapids, Michigan, long-term care community. The study applied Montessori methods tailored to nursing home patient care, including meaningful interactions and greater communication.

Results showed that, after a year, residents were significantly more positive and had more feelings of self-esteem and belonging. Staff job satisfaction rose, too.

"If you can help someone communicate, you can help their overall well-being," said Natalie Douglas, director of the division of speech-language pathology in The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions and Smyth's mentor.

Douglas and her CMU team of two speech-language pathology master's degree students presented their findings in July at an international Alzheimer's conference in Chicago.

"If you can help someone communicate, you can help their overall well-being," Natalie Douglas, director of the division of speech-language pathology.

Taking the next steps

Smyth plans a similar study this year at two Mount Pleasant-area nursing homes that will be the basis of her master's thesis.

Before Montessori introduction at the Grand Rapids facility, residents typically spent their days eating, watching television and doing irregularly scheduled group activities that were not based on anybody's particular interests or strengths, Douglas said.

The team's goals were to change the environment and practices to enable residents to be as independent as possible, make meaningful contributions to their community and to grow their self-esteem.

To achieve those goals, the teams helped rearrange the facility — creating spaces for more free movement and activity, making the environment visually organized, adding aspects of nature, and creating wayfinding cues and invitations for engagement. And they instituted Montessori for Aging and Dementia methods.

Those methods include enabling residents of mixed abilities to work together while encouraging them to do as much for themselves as possible. Residents are offered choices of activities that have meaning and purpose and are given uninterrupted blocks of activity time with specialized materials that they can freely choose. The staff also is trained in Montessori methods.

An experience of love and life

Learning from the Grand Rapids study and modifying some of those strategies, Smyth said she wants to add nursing home activities that residents normally would do in their own homes, such as cooking, gardening and laundry. Those tasks help the residents reconnect to their life experiences through all of their senses, she said.

Douglas said part of the cycle of dementia is that as people start to lose memory, they lose communication skills. As a result, they talk to fewer people and do fewer things, which leads to having fewer things to talk about.

When nursing home residents do familiar activities, Smyth explained, they are more joyful and freely talk to others about them. If you stop and listen to their stories and tailor care to each person's experience, they will thrive.

"When my great-grandmother entered the nursing home, her experience was one of love and life, rather than sadness and death. I understand that many people don't feel that way, and I'd like to change that," she said. "It's a challenging goal, but people in nursing homes are delightful if you just try to communicate with them."


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