Something as small as putting a ball of yarn in the hands of a former seamstress may lead to improvement in dementia patients, according to a professor of psychology at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon. 

Paulette Hunter is studying the effect the Montessori method — traditionally used in children's education — may have on dementia patients. 

According to Hunter, the Montessori method ensures that care is centred around the whole person, their lifelong need to participate in meaningful activities and to be challenged at the cognitive level. 

Due to resources, most long-term care homes focus on group activities in which everyone can participate. So for her research, Hunter brought in 18 volunteers to work with the dementia patients in the study. 

"We wanted to do a project that didn't strain long-term care too much," Hunter explained.

"We wanted to see if bringing in volunteers to do individual activities with people who have dementia and to cater those activities to their own interests and needs, if that might be a good way to reach out to people and improve quality of life," Hunter said.

At this point Hunter says the results are purely anecdotal, but it looks promising. 

'I think it was sparking memories. It was something she liked to do in the past.' - Paulette Hunter

One patient — a former seamstress, has lost some cognitive and motor skills because of the disease, but showed an enthusiastic reaction to her volunteer rolling the yarn up into balls. At first, Hunter was worried the activity might be too simple, but the woman loved the project. It also caused her to express interest in other activities. 

"I think it was sparking memories, it was something she liked to do in the past to work with fabric and so on and so forth but it was also something she felt confident doing now. So, an element of what she'd done in the past but at the right level for right now," Hunter said. 

Other activities include using dice to hone math skills and bringing in maps so patients can talk about where they were born or where they've traveled to. 

Hunter still needs to review the data from the study before she can give any official findings, but says it is a project that is sustainable. 

In fact, many of the volunteers have continued to work with the patients past the study period.