For many, just hearing the word dementia incites fear.
That’s why Wood County Committee on Aging, Bowling Green State University gerontology students and Montessori School of Bowling Green students have teamed up to dispel myths about dementia and Alzheimer’s and help those with the conditions feel more involved in their communities.
Participants will work together during “Finding Your P.L.A.C.E.,” a collaborative service learning partnership where learning activities and connected experiences will change expectations about what people with dementia are capable of, said Jessica Hover, associate director of the Montessori School of Bowling Green.
The program connects the school’s upper elementary students with seniors who have mild to moderate cognitive impairments.
Students will share their lessons with the seniors, such as measuring angles in geometry using 3-dimensional shapes, and together they will complete the lesson.
BGSU gerontology students will facilitate the activities.
“Intergenerational service learning is so unique for everyone involved. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for us all,” Hover said.
The connection between Montessori education and assisting seniors with cognitive impairments lies in the way Montessori lessons facilitate concentration and awareness of surroundings, she said.
Montessori lessons have been proven to enhance the learning experiences of those suffering from dementia, while children get to learn from their life experiences, Hover said.
“Service learning, hands-on materials and purposeful acts, not just doing things to do them, really help kids learn and help those with memory loss adjust,” she said. “We had a lot of interested students because we value hands-on, authentic learning.”
Danielle Brogley, director of programs at WCCOA, said such programs won’t alter the prognosis of the memory loss-related conditions but have been shown to ease the transition for people who are diagnosed.
“People with memory loss tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed when they try to complete tasks, so doing something like this shows them that they’re still valued, that their knowledge is still needed and important,” Brogley said. “It gives them a reason to get up in the morning.”
Last month, Brogley facilitated a training session for participants who will work with seniors with memory loss.
Through hands-on training exercises — like writing their names and addresses with their non-dominant hands while wearing goggles smeared with Vaseline to blur vision — participants experienced what it feels like to lose sensory perception so they may be more understanding of the seniors they will be working with.
“If we can understand aging, it makes it less scary, and it makes us less anti-aging as a society,” Brogley said.
Cindy Whittaker came to the training to sign up her husband, Jack Whittaker, as a participant and to learn more about his condition.
Having Alzheimer’s is hard enough for her husband, but as his caregiver, Whittaker has had to adjust to the “new normal,” too, she said.
“It’s kind of like, you don’t train the dog, the dog trains you as its owner. Jack is training me about his condition,” she said. “We’ve had more happiness because I’ve learned more, so I can adjust better.”
Upon completing the training activities, Whittaker said they were the “best lessons ever” due to the insight they give trainees on what it’s like to have memory loss.
“I’ve gone to many support groups but what you’re making us go through is huge. It puts us in their shoes,” she said.
Whittaker’s grandson is a student at the school, giving her and her husband a connection to the school and to the program.
Though their grandson is too young to participate in the program, Whittaker thought it offered “the perfect chance” at getting her husband out and about.
“Jack was a pediatric dentist in town for years. He loves kids. I hope that’s what will be the spark to get him here,” she said. “He isn’t real cooperative in wanting to do tasks or very interested in leaving the house. It’s hard because he doesn’t really recognize people but he knows he should.”
Programs like this help ease the feelings of shame and embarrassment many seniors have due to memory loss, Brogley said.
“Many feel things are more difficult than they used to be or they used to be able to do something and find that now they can’t. We want to challenge the ageist attitudes of ‘I can’t’ and change them to ‘I can,’” she said. “Our job is to show them what they’re doing is not wrong. That’s why we do art. You can’t be wrong in art, you can only be successful.”
“Finding Your P.L.A.C.E.” sessions take place on the first and third Tuesdays of each month from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the school.
The program runs through May.
WCCOA is also offering an hour-long movement class for those with mild to moderate dementia to work on their strength, balance and coordination.
The Wood County Senior Center hosts “Move!” on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month at 11 a.m. for $2 per session.
For more program information, visit www.wccoa.net.