Lisa Armao

Founder, Montessori Intergenerational Learning Communities
Denver, Colorado

Photos by Todd Van Fleet

Photos by Todd Van Fleet

What is MILC and what inspired you to start it?   

Montessori Intergenerational Learning Communities (MILC) is a nonprofit that provides Montessori early childhood education for children ages 0-5 and Montessori programming to support aging adults living with dementia. We create intentional, intergenerational Montessori learning communities where children and aging adults, including those with memory loss, can learn and play, side by side.

I have always believed that young children deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, which led me to ​the Montessori method of education, w​here I spent 28 years working in Montessori leadership. A few years back, I visited an intergenerational learning community, integrating childcare and senior living. I was so impressed to learn that Montessori is being used as a model of care for adults living with dementia, mostly in the UK, Australia and Europe.

Soon after, I began my training in Montessori for Aging and Dementia and am now completely obsessed with creating an environment where children can attend preschool and adults with dementia can attend day services — under one roof.

What did you do before you started ​MILC?​ 

I have been in Montessori early childhood leadership since 1998. I started out as a volunteer coordinator in a public Montessori charter school and worked ​my​ way up to primary program director. After completing my Montessori Administrator Credential, I went on to be head of school at two different, very successful Montessori nonprofit schools in the Denver area. I continue to be involved in the Montessori community and served on the Colorado Montessori Association Board 2015-2017.

What problem are you trying to solve? Why is it needed​? 

Colorado is among the most expensive states for most types of childcare, when costs are looked at as a percentage of median family income. For almost one in five low-income families, lack of affordable childcare affects employment choices, like whether to work or which job to take. And lack of childcare is a particularly important factor in influencing labor force participation among women.

More than 5 million adults in the United States live with dementia, and social isolation accelerates their decline. They want to be around others who make them feel good, and research shows that when they choose emotionally meaningful activities they are more likely to report sustained wellbeing. Families struggle to find that kind of quality care.

MILC is in the process of securing our first site to bring these two populations together in a shared intergenerational setting. We will provide affordable, high-quality Montessori educational childcare through scholarships, tuition assistance and discounted tuition options. We will use the Montessori for Aging and Dementia method of care to provide purposeful activities for aging adults living with dementia, increasing positive affect and life engagement. And we will do it under one roof.

How will ​your program ​work?

We’re now partnering with assisted-living facilities that have the space to create Montessori classrooms for children and are willing to adapt the Montessori model of care with their aging adult population. We’re also partnering with existing Montessori schools interested in forming lasting relationships with an assisted-living facility. We coordinate scheduled visits and education for both the children and aging adults. It’s been a great experience for both populations!

It’s our goal to open a brick-and-mortar space housing both a Montessori Children’s House serving children 0-5 and an adult day facility for aging adults, including those with dementia, and sharing some (not all) activities, staff and resources. This model could be duplicated all over the country.

What makes your approach different or unique? 

Montessori methods encourage young and old alike to explore and observe their environment, learn at their own pace, develop critical thinking skills and care for themselves, others, and their community as independently as possible through “meaningful work.”

By combining the Montessori method of education for children, the Montessori model of care for Aging and Dementia for adults, and intergenerational learning for both, MILC creates a unique, active, and joyful learning environment. It’s so much more powerful than the passive, entertainment-based, adult-child interactions we typically see in intergenerational communities.

What is your big, audacious vision? What does the world look like in 5-10 years, if MILC ​achieves what you want it to?  

Partnerships between Montessori schools and assisted-living communities will become commonplace. A 4-year-old will invite their 87-year-old friend from school to their birthday party — and no one will think it out of the ordinary. Our model will be regarded as ​THE​ model for quality, Montessori early childhood education and day services for aging adults, including those living with dementia.

There will be a plethora of training centers for intergenerational Montessori learning, offering certification in Montessori for children and aging adult care, as well as a robust volunteer training program. A growing number of people will pursue encore careers in Montessori.

In the future I see, society will be less fearful and age-segregated. There will be greater value placed on the ways aging adults with dementia can add to our society and to children’s lives. There will be less need to medicate aging adults with dementia, because they will be so calm and grounded in their view of the world, thanks to meaningful interactions with children every day.

Paint a picture of a moment when your organization is doing exactly what you intend it to do.  

There is an aging adult with dementia and a young child, working side-by-side on a Montessori activity created specifically for the adult to remember, even if only for a moment, and the child to learn. At times they’re concentrating and serious, and at other times they’re laughing and being silly. Age and disease barriers are gone, and all that you see is two human beings connecting.

How can people get involved with your work?

Montessori schools and Montessori Assisted Living Residences can hire MILC to train their staff, paving the way for partnerships between them. Older adults can volunteer by bringing their hobbies and skills to our coordinated visits between schools and Assisted Living Residences and, soon, to our brick-and-mortar sites.

What advice would you give someone who wants to replicate what you’re doing in their community?

Contact me at [email protected]. Take Montessori training for Aging and Dementia and get Montessori certification for early learning.