Cameron Camp is helping people with dementia stay engaged by applying Maria Montessori’s
famed educational techniques.
By Kayt Sukel
In 1983, geropsychologist Cameron Camp, PhD, was frustrated. Although
he had successfully used traditional
memory interventions, such as simple
mnemonic techniques, to help older
adults improve their cognition, those
interventions were largely ineffective for
people with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease
or other types of cognitive impairment.
Camp wanted to find ways to improve
those individuals’ engagement with
others and their overall quality of life.
In a happy coincidence, Camp’s
children had started at a local
Montessori school at about the same
time. As he watched his children
blossom in their school environment,
he took note of the method’s focus on
independence and social engagement
and wondered if he could adapt the
Montessori approach for people with
dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
That adaptation is now known
as the Montessori-based Dementia
Programming Method, a series of
interventions aimed at helping people
with dementia improve their motor
and cognitive skills to better participate
in the world around them. And several
studies have shown that its focus on
teaching over enabling greatly improves
constructive engagement, or appropriate
motor or verbal behaviors in response to
a specific situation, in this population.
(See “Further reading” box on page 45.)
Since 2000, Camp and his colleagues
What made you think that the
at the Center for Applied Research in
Dementia, in Solon, Ohio, have trained
thousands of caregivers and family
members across dozens of homes and
care centers, in the United States and
abroad, in this method. In an interview
with the Monitor, Camp discussed how
psychologists can help people with
dementia to lead fuller, healthier lives
by tweaking their physical and social
environments and, above all, treating
them the way we would like to be treated.
Montessori approach might
help people with dementia and
When I looked at the Montessori
techniques, I could see that they were
based on learning by doing as opposed
to the verbal training that is so typical in
other interventions. Montessori focuses
on abilities rather than disabilities, and
how to circumvent deficits. All the dots
just connected and I began dabbling,
using some of the Montessori teaching
methods in the day centers where I was
working. And the more we used it, the
more we found that it really worked.
It’s basically a new paradigm for
dementia care. The emphasis is on
creating communities of people with
dementia and giving them as much
independence as possible. They are
given control of their own lives. In a
Montessori school, it’s the children who
manage the environment. They manage
meals and serve the food. And that’s
what we’re doing. We’re teaching people
how to engage people with dementia,
how to focus on abilities rather than
deficits, and how to create meaningful
social roles for them so they can remain
engaged and present.
Our approach is about trying to live
well with dementia, just as we would try
to live well with any chronic disability or
condition. It’s about providing a good
quality of life as the treatment modality.
The current system isn’t providing it
because too often people with dementia
are put on medications to address their
cognitive deficits. But pharmacological
treatment should be the treatment of last
resort, not first resort. The role of any
pharmacological treatment should be to
enable non-pharmacologic interventions
to be used more effectively.
How does the method work in a
typical care center?
If you look around a place that has been
retrofitted with our model, you’ll see a
lot of signs. You’ll see a sign listing what
job each resident has for the day — each
resident has some job to do. There’s a
sign next to the newspaper rack that says,
“Please take one and read.” Drawers are
labeled so people know what’s inside.
There are all manner of environmental
supports, or cognitive ramps, that
encourage engagement and a sense of
community, as well as to help people
use the environment more effectively.
Residents serve meals to other residents.
It’s a community — and it has a different
look and feel than traditional models.
And this goes beyond just the
community in the care center itself. At a