Can people with Alzheimer's disease continue to learn? Most people would say that they cannot, as their short-term memory is deteriorating, and we need to hold a concept in our short-term memory before we can commit it to long term memory. However, a story by Angela Jimenez on nytimes.com tells of a doctor who has been proving this concept to be false, at least in some instances.
In "Making Connections," Jimenez focuses on a program developed by Cameron J. Camp, an experimental psychologist. Camp has applied the childhood education principles of Montessori schools to people most consider unable to learn new things. Dr. Camp developed training seminars and materials that are now used by many nursing facilities around the country. His inspiration came when he was working with the elderly at the same time his young child was attending a Montessori school.
Early in the early 20th century, Maria Montessori of Rome, Italy, developed a method for teaching that centers on the concept that children learn best when all of their senses are used. Montessori teachers provide tools to help children learn through touch, as well as sound, sight, taste and smell. Category-sorting exercises help children see connections and patterns. According to Montessori's philosophy, these exercises help children learn on a deeper level.
Dr. Camp's curriculum for people with Alzheimer's includes matching colored balls to cups, telling the difference between food categories, putting flowers in pots. Repeatedly matching up things that go together teaches the brain to connect these items, and nursing homes that have used this method are reporting positive results.
What I gather from reading the article is that these exercises will keep the brain in learning mode longer, since the stimulation comes from touch as well as sound and sight. An example used is that a person with Alzheimer's, placed in a new setting, can learn where the table is where he or she will eat. It may take time, but with cues from his or her surroundings, the person learns and remembers.
I will say I had an immediate, gut-level, negative reaction to using a child's approach to someone with Alzheimer's disease. I do think that for those who use this concept, there also must be thorough training aimed toward the fact that they are not dealing with children. The attitude of the teacher must be respectful of the fact that they are teaching adults, and the projects used should be meaningful to adults.
I will admit to being fanatical about this issue. Elders are not children, no matter what stage of dementia they have entered. When I got into my dad's world because he couldn't come into mine, it was always with the utmost seriousness and respect. If I had done so in a condescending manner, he would have picked up on that and though my aim would have been to help him, he would have felt diminished. I could not have lived with that. He was the boss and I always tried to treat him as such.
My point being that the Montessori approach may be fantastic for people with Alzheimer's disease, and if so, I'm grateful that some elders have access to it. I would, as an advocate for my elder, want to see how the classes my loved one was a part of were taught. The attitude of the teacher and how the materials are presented would be vitally important, in my view.
It seems to me that if people are learning something new, they are engaged. Even if what they learned will soon be forgotten, the fact that they are engaged in something that interests them, and that they have a chance to feel the satisfaction of accomplishing a task, makes this information important.
I haven't personally been in a situation to read statistics or even see the program in action. However, I have seen people with Alzheimer's respond to art therapy and music, both of which use senses that don't directly involve the memory. I have seen peace, and even joy, on faces when people feel pleased with the result of painting on paper, or even folding laundry.
Engaging people in whatever they are capable of doing is bound to be good for them. If it encourages learning, that is even better. If what is learned will soon be forgotten, so be it. To me, while important, remembering isn't the main point.
I'm hoping Dr. Camp's curriculum will increase quality of life for people with Alzheimer's. I'm also hoping that even those who can't offer the curriculum that Dr. Camp uses will pick up on the fact that engaging all of the senses of any elder, just as with the rest of us, will pay off.
Quality of life is, in my opinion, what this is about. Giving choices, offering stimulating and enjoyable activities and treating people with Alzheimer's and other dementia with dignity is vital. Let's stop assuming that people with dementia can no longer learn, and start trying to find ways to help them do so. Why shouldn't people with dementia feel the joy of accomplishment? As long as the dignity of the elder is respected, I'm all for new approaches.