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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) - Dementia now affects 35 million people worldwide, but having dementia doesn't mean having a poor quality of life. A new program offered in West Michigan is helping these older Americans live life with purpose.

It's a Montessori-based program for dementiapatients that uses the same techniques as the pre-school based learning program.

A simple game of kickball played by the residents at Whispering Woods is doing more than just giving them some exercise; it's giving them a purpose for their day.

"It's amazing to sit and watch the residents start to come out," saidElicia Van Ark, the Montessori-based Dementia program director for Lifehouse Propertiesin Grand Rapids.

Van Ark says the program is very similar to the pre-school version. "The Montessori teachers were taught to sit on their hands and allow the students to figure it out. That's what we do with the residents and then they do it. There's no right or wrong way to do an activity."

From large group activities to small ones, Van Ark says dementia patients are encouraged to stay busy throughout the day and experience life their own way. "It allows them to do what they're still able to do and to come out and to make those witty remarks and to make those jokes and to have that ability to just be themselves."

Van Ark says even though they just started the program three months ago, she's seen a big difference in the residents. "It allows them to have that purpose and as we started implementing this you could already see the differences."

And Van Ark says there's another benefit too. "This program allows families to reconnect. It allows them to get to know them on the level they are right now in life."

That's what Larry Pirozzo discovered not long after his mother came to Whispering Woods. "She seems to be more outgoing, more getting involved with things going on. She's gotten to the point where she walks around without having to use her walker. And it's like a little bit of an adventure. 'OK, I know she's here some place? Where is she?' because she could be dancing in another room with the other residents."

Whispering Woods, which is part of Lifehouse Properties, is the only elderly care facility in the nation using the Montessori-based dementia program with their residents.

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