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Montessori and Intergenerational Care


Tuesday 05 November 2019

The Montessori Europe Congress was held in Dublin a few weeks ago. It was quite a while since I was at a Montessori gathering, and I enjoyed going back to my roots, so to speak!

Surprisingly however, the session I found the most inspirational was not relating to early years but with an American Montessorian, Jennifer Brush, who is using her passion for the Montessori principles with older people.

The first thing I loved about her presentation was that when she referred to the older people, she worked with she called them the Elders. So often, we call older people old-folk, the elderly, old-people, and we call the facilities in which some of them live nursing homes. This terminology can suggest that older people are all in need of care and minding and are unable to think for themselves or do things for themselves. The use of the term the Elders gives respect, value and validation to their knowledge and experience, while also acknowledging that many people in their older years do need more care than they did previously. It brought to mind our former President Mary Robinson's elevation as Chair of The Elders, an international global peace group, some years ago.

Jennifer described two strands to her work:

The first relates to the work she and her team do with providers of residential care for the Elders. I saw many parallels to Aistear in this approach, and in the principles of Universal Design. In the care facilities they always make snacks available so those living there can help themselves when they choose. Residents are encouraged to set the tables at meal times. There are tables and chairs and attractive alcoves dotted around the facility with meaningful activities available, just like the Montessori Practical Life activities: these include arranging flowers, folding, Montessori insets for design, pouring, polishing shoes, playing music CDs, using Montessori dressing frames and so on. Watering plants and other gardening tasks are also encouraged. Wayfinding is clear: There is good signage so people can find their way around and there are good visual cues to help. These simple steps to encourage people to remain independent and engaged in meaningful activity has, according to Jennifer’s study, led to a reduction in medication and to happier residents, who showed increased levels of well-being. 

Here in Ireland there are several examples of preschools visiting local residential care facilities and settings who have engaged in this have spoken about how successful this is. I have often wondered about extending this approach, both in terms of more settings doing visits and also those settings sharing more in their community (as opposed to just residential care facilities). Therefore, the second project Jennifer spoke about was very interesting to me.

The initiative involved older people who were either living in their own homes or in an assisted living facility.  A suitable venue was sourced (school /preschool settings are often not suitable due to space, storage etc.). This venue had to have good parking facilities, space for mobility aids, a range of furniture sizes, and needed to be orderly and beautiful, with good lighting, accessible bathroom facilities, and have access to the outdoors. An Interests Inventory was done prior to the commencement of the programme to identify interests and skills. (It wasn’t clear if it was only the Elders took part in this inventory, or if the children were asked about their interests also.) None of the Elders who took part were very frail. The children were aged 6 to 12 years and the Elders were aged 69 to 84 years. Full parental information was provided and consent was obtained in advance.

The aims of the programme were to:

  • Reduce stigma
  • Provide socialisation
  • Promote meaningful relationships
  • Support life-long-learning
  • Be entertaining

Screening of adult participants took place prior to the programme and they were never alone with children. 

The Elders arrived at the venue 45 minutes before the children, so they had time to check in and get settled. Then the children arrived. Various activities were set up, based on the Interests Inventory. These can range from language, arts, science, food preparation, puzzles and games. One man had a huge interest in coin collecting, which fascinated some of the children. The activity phase lasted about 45 minutes. A snack was available during the session. The programme lasted 8 weeks. Observational data has been gathered by researchers and is being collated at present.

Some challenges encountered before the start included some Elders being slow to make a time commitment, their fear of technology and of weather conditions. One man was slow to engage because he had a stammer and was afraid it would frighten the children: He never stammered once during the whole programme!  One person left the group and gave no reason and one because it triggered memories of a grandchild’s death. Overwhelmingly, the group wanted the programme to continue.  

In a world where extended families are less common than before, many grandparents, grand-uncles and grand-aunts don’t get to see their young relatives very often, and many children live long distances from their older relations, initiatives like Jennifer’s give all generations opportunities to learn respectfully from each other.

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