The Power of Improvisational Play as Positive Shift

I recently engaged in conversation with a leader who makes every effort to incorporate storytelling in his communications with his “tribe.” This led to a discussion on what makes a story. It’s about the shift. Any time a shift, otherwise known as an inciting incident, occurs in someone’s “normal,” it changes everything from that point on. Or, at least it has the potential to.

 And then I started thinking about when shifts occur and what comprises all things “shift.” First of all, a shift is a change of direction or attitude. In the context of story, this might be a bit of bad or good news, or a catastrophic event. At that point, everything changes, for good or for bad. New decisions must be made, new actions must be taken. And eventually those decisions and actions lead to a new “normal.”

 So, how does this apply in the world of elder care and creative engagement? I’ve discovered an incremental shift of attitude over the past few months as a result of a curriculum I’ve been developing in a class implemented by my boss. The class is designed to free up staff by means of improvisational exercises and assignments over a 12-week period. The ultimate goal is that staff will creatively engage with residents more often, more intentionally, and more meaningfully – both spontaneously and during planned activities. The shift that has occurred is an improvement in camaraderie among both staff and residents as well as an overall improvement in positive energy and purpose.

Let me explain. Each week I facilitate a large group creative engagement experience based around a specific topic under the guise of “Kareen’s Kettle.” Instead of me being the sole facilitator of the experience, I now recruit staff to lend themselves for about ten minutes during the hour to do the unexpected. Usually two or three of them will collaborate as to the arrival time that best suits their schedule. If I have time, I’ll give them a few instructions ahead of time. Otherwise, they know that they are to follow the rules of improv which include accepting and assuming the imaginary role I toss at them, taking risks and not censoring themselves, and not blocking. The key words are, “Yes and!” Then, when I begin the “Kettle,” I give the residents a little teaser saying something like, “At some point during our hour, the “Who Knows Who’s” will show up to do “Who Knows What?” The residents know this means that two or three staff will show up to do improvisational dancing, singing, or role-playing. And they smile, because they know it’ll be fun. And my coworkers have fun. And we all talk about it later, so the residual effects endure long after the Kettle is over.

These ten-minute “adventures” serve as shifts. Though the residents may already be engaged with what I’m facilitating, these spontaneous and improvisational exercises redirect their attention and often produce laughter and smiles and a heightened overall experience. In essence, the shift that improvisational play creates is positive redirection, endorphin release, momentary pain reduction, camaraderie, and a sense of love and belonging to replace loneliness or the blues.

So, here’s a little example for you to try when you’re all by yourself driving. Smile for no reason, and keep smiling for about one minute. Then see for yourself if you experienced a slight shift in your attitude.

If interested in a plethora of field-tested improvisational play ideas for elders, click: Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults (ArtAge Pub.).

How Bette Midler Helped Elders Launch Their Imagination

There is nothing more elating than facilitating the unleashing of imagination in the world of elders. As a play on Bette Midler's first name, I challenged a large group of elders to turn on their imaginations and complete the following sentence, "I bet you can . . ." Not everyone found this an easy task. Some of the participants, because of cognitive challenges or simply having lost the art of imagination, needed a little help. In those instances, when they said, "I don't know," I replied something like, "That's right. So-and-So is far too humble to admit it to the rest of us. So, why don't you (said coworker) tell the rest of us exactly what you know this person is capable of!" And, voila! The beauty of improv ushers forth a spirit of play. The result? Lots of laughter and camaraderie.

 I "Bette" You Can - Photo by Kareen King

I "Bette" You Can - Photo by Kareen King

How to Start a Conversation about Mortality

“How old will I be when I die?” I once asked a Quija board that my parents had stored in the basement when I was in junior high. This followed by, “How will I die?”

I watched my fingers involuntarily shift a pointer amongst the numbers and letters on the board until I got my answer. The answer, though disturbing, didn’t faze me much because the end seemed an eternity away. I was to die of brain damage at the age of 53.

A few years later, when I placed my trust in the Creator instead of the Quija board, I “renounced” my former “supernatural” activities which included Kresgin’s ESP, following my daily Horoscope, playing “Light as a Feather” during grade school sleepovers, telling ghost stories, and participating in child-invented séances. So far, so good.

Though I repented of my “evil” doings, the Quija board number that supposedly marked the end of my mortality remained a tiny voice in my head. As ridiculous as it sounds, I wasn't totally at peace until the clock struck midnight, and I entered year 54 of my life.. Be that as it may, I have no interest in seeing the movie, Quija: Origin of Evil, even though Rotten Tomatoes gives it an 84% which is rare for a horror movie.

In the meantime, I think there is value in “living like you were dying,” as Tim McGraw’s song suggests. Love deeper, speak sweeter, forgive, become the friend a friend would like to have, read the “Good Book,” go sky-diving and Rocky-Mountain climbing, etc., etc.  But many people don’t think that way until they face their mortality. And some never think that way.

I recall a moment while assisting at meal-time in a long-term care community.  I noticed a teary-eyed woman seated at a table with three friends. I sat down beside her and asked what was wrong.

“Everything,” she replied.

“Do you not feel well? Are you lonely?” I probed, putting my arm around her.

“I’m always lonely,” she cried.

I then noticed the loving efforts made by her three table-mates to console and cheer her. I began asking her about her life.

“I remember everything,” she declared.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” I probed.

“None of it will ever happen again,” she lamented.

In an effort to provide a more helpful framework for her to review her life, I informed her about Dr. Seuss’s wisdom, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I suggested she think of her mind as a sanctuary, reliving the memories with gratitude. It seemed logical to me that one could draw comfort from drawing from such a well of beauty and meaning whenever one saw fit.

“You’re preparing me for death,” she chided, resisting my efforts to coach her through this important chapter in her process of life resolution.

Though I hadn’t thought of it that way initially, she was right. I was preparing her for death, albeit an exercise in futility. I am learning much by watching others face or avoid their mortality. Perhaps she felt I was patronizing her in my efforts to encourage her. She is one of multitudes who struggle toward mastering what developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson calls the Ego Integrity vs. Integrity “Wisdom” stage of older adulthood.

Gerontocrats are those who face aging with grace, who make peace with the past, who continue to be grateful for what they have and to embrace life. They have ego integrity. Gerontophobes are those who dread and despise the aging process and fear facing the end of life. Their lives are filled with more regret than gratitude. When they don’t resolve the past, they live with despair.

My oldest daughter Joanna once shared with her family and closest friends, a memoir of her college years in Oregon. Though only 23 at the time, she had the emotional tools to deal with loss. She worked through resolution in short order as she chose the difficult task of saying good-bye to her Kansas family and friends before she moved to Germany to be with the love of her life.

“It is all beginning to hit me – that my life is no longer as I once knew it and that I can never go back to the past and relive anything. It’s moments like tonight that remind me that I need to sort out all that has happened in this time and to feel it all,” were the poignant words my daughter poured out in the height of her emotions.

So, how do we open the door of conversation with our elders about this elephant in the room called mortality? My boss recently blurted out the following question to me and a former colleague: “If the good Lord were to call you home today, would you be ready?” Though it appeared out of nowhere, it led to a very helpful conversation, as I had been struggling with a disturbing dream about the afterlife that I hadn’t yet worked through.

That question was recently used in an assignment with some of my coworkers who work at the two retirement communities I serve. One of my coworkers felt the assignment slightly awkward, wondering if it might be more natural for the opportunity to just present itself as what happened with me and the weeping woman. I share her sentiment, but I also discovered that I welcomed the question, random as it was when handed to me by my boss. We never know who is waiting for us to make the first move in starting what might otherwise be an uncomfortable topic to tackle.

And why not? Our mortality is one thing we all have in common.

So, how do we start a conversation about our mortality? Start from a place of love, take the plunge, and let the chips fall where they may. Though your words may get all scrambled up, love will take care of the rest.

When Hugs are Divine

I sat with a group of ladies at lunch. One, unable to converse, with the wave of her hand, left the table early. While eating, I couldn't help but wonder if her sad eyes were on the verge of tears.

Determined to follow-up, I walked to her room, knocked on the door, and gently let myself in. She was seated in a chair with one leg propped.

ME: Is it o.k. if I come in?

SHE: Yes.

ME: I just felt like I needed to give you a hug.

I walked toward her, reached out my hands, leaned in, and gave her a good, long hug.

SHE: The Lord works all things together for good. Thank you. Can you stay for a while?

ME: Of course.

I sat down on the couch across from her.

SHE: Go look at the picture on my cupboard.

I got up, walked toward her kitchen, and found a little Family Circus cartoon on her kitchen cupboard that read, “Sometimes when you hurt inside, no medicine can fix it. Only a hug can.”

SHE: How did you KNOW?

ME: I guess I just felt a little nudge inside that you needed a hug.

We visited for awhile about her current physical challenges and limitations, her achievements and losses in life, her determination to look at the positives, and her decision to accept the fact that, though she’s ready to be done with this earthly life, God is not yet finished with her.

Before leaving, I gave her one more hug. She gave me a loving and gentle admonishment.

SHE: Be open. Don’t say you don’t have time. Make time.

Divine Hug - Photo by Kareen King

Reporting on MidAmerica Institute on Aging

Playing catch-up after a crazy busy summer. Right on the heels of the Pioneer Network Conference was The MidAmerica Institute on Aging and Wellness where I presented two creative engagement sessions as well as “Finding Emilou” as the endnote concert for David Troxel’s Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care pre-conference. I met a lot of amazing people at the conference, several which are pictured above (David Troxel of The Best Friends Approach, my Emilou puppet and me, and conference committee and/or staff members involved with MAIA including Katie Ehlman, Mary Ann Allen, and two other lovely individuals whose names I've forgotten - apologies!)

I thoroughly enjoyed the conference which featured keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Gregor, author of “How Not to Die.” He explained how nutrition and life-style interventions, specifically emphasizing a plant-based diet, can sometimes trump pharmaceuticals. I’ve been eating a lot more salads since returning home, by the way, thanks in particular to another wonderful presenter, Robin Mallery of Heart Matters. I later discovered her chocolate mindfulness Ted Talk which I highly recommend, this coming from a person who tends to inhale food. Thanks to her, I’m savoring my food and losing weight at the same time!

I also enjoyed two playful sessions facilitated by Ginny Hunneke and Jennifer Maurer of The Fun Conspiracy, reminding me that adults (who laugh much less often on a daily basis than kindergartners) need more play in their lives!

And, of course, I enjoyed meeting David Broxel who shared his journey and practical approaches in treating people with dementia. I can tell he and I are of kindred spirit as we both agree that the best treatment is YOU and ME!

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Greg O’Brien’s moving presentation on what it is to live with Alzheimer’s.

And finally, I must add that this conference is planned and hosted by the kindest, most considerate, and most hospitable individuals I have yet to experience in the world of conferences! I highly recommend this conference which happens annually in Evansville, Indiana.

Reporting on the 2016 Pioneer Network Conference Experience

Mirroring during Kareen King's Presentation, "To Be Somebody's Someone" at the Pioneer Network Conference

Pictured above is me mirroring Mavis during "To Be Somebody's Someone," one of two sessions I presented at the Pioneer Network Conference in New Orleans. Both sessions, "Let's Get Unreal!" a creative engagement half-day intensive, and "To Be Somebody's Someone," a 1 1/2 hour session featuring original songs and narratives about what it is to simply be with another human being in an "I-Thou" relationship, were well received.

I was thrilled when one of the participants in the "Let's Get Unreal" intensive, Debra Block of Hebrew Senior Life in Boston, approached me saying she's been using the curriculum from my book, "Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults" for about a year. She said, "I find it's the only curriculum I can relate to as an Artistic Theatre Activities Director." All 40 of the books sold out at the Pioneer Network Bookstore. If you're interested in purchasing one for yourself, click here.

Another woman, Kathie Ferguson of Levonia, MI, shared after the session that she jumped right in and created a rough draft of her own creative engagement event, "Mardis Gras Experience."

 The 2016 conference, titled "Revolutionizing the Culture of Aging," featured a plethora of sessions on ways to facilitate a culture of aging that is life-affirming, satisfying, humane, and meaningful. One highlight was the Tuesday Morning plenary keynote, "CNA Edge," featuring three Certified Nursing Assistants who blog about what it's like to work in the trenches of long-term care. They relayed the gap between them and the rest of the "system," saying that genuine culture change can't truly change until caregivers are understood. The following list conveys some of what they experience in the trenches:  1. They learn to adapt quickly.  2. Conversations that are insane to others are their norm.  3. They meet demands that make no sense.  4. They shrug off being bombarded by bodily fluids.  5. Humor saves their sanity.  6. They have days that make them wonder why they're in this field.  7. If they stay in this field long enough, their perception will be changed.  One thing was clear. They deeply care for the elders they serve, and are committed in spite of the less than desirable hourly wage. They don't appreciate when others tell them that being a CNA is just a stepping stone to a better career.  A personal highlight was a session facilitated by Molly Middleton Meyer, founder of Mind's Eye Poetry. Upon returning to the trenches the day after the conference, I immediately applied her practical tools on facilitating a meaningful and engaging poetry experience. I'll blog about that in a separate post. But, for now, here's a teaser. It's just one of several poems created collectively from three different group of residents. This one was created by six women with advanced dementia.    
  
 
  
    
  
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   Preferred     I see a man playing a guitar    He’s wearing green, yellow, red    He’s wearing a hat    He’s singing    I hope it’s a happy song    Someplace where there’s a crowd    Where people gather with friends    He’s singing loudly    It’s beautiful    What makes me happy is food    What makes me happy is when I’m preferred    Because I do    Sometimes I feel preferred    Sometimes not    It depends on who it is    We all see around here

The 2016 conference, titled "Revolutionizing the Culture of Aging," featured a plethora of sessions on ways to facilitate a culture of aging that is life-affirming, satisfying, humane, and meaningful. One highlight was the Tuesday Morning plenary keynote, "CNA Edge," featuring three Certified Nursing Assistants who blog about what it's like to work in the trenches of long-term care. They relayed the gap between them and the rest of the "system," saying that genuine culture change can't truly change until caregivers are understood. The following list conveys some of what they experience in the trenches:

1. They learn to adapt quickly.

2. Conversations that are insane to others are their norm.

3. They meet demands that make no sense.

4. They shrug off being bombarded by bodily fluids.

5. Humor saves their sanity.

6. They have days that make them wonder why they're in this field.

7. If they stay in this field long enough, their perception will be changed.

One thing was clear. They deeply care for the elders they serve, and are committed in spite of the less than desirable hourly wage. They don't appreciate when others tell them that being a CNA is just a stepping stone to a better career.

A personal highlight was a session facilitated by Molly Middleton Meyer, founder of Mind's Eye Poetry. Upon returning to the trenches the day after the conference, I immediately applied her practical tools on facilitating a meaningful and engaging poetry experience. I'll blog about that in a separate post. But, for now, here's a teaser. It's just one of several poems created collectively from three different group of residents. This one was created by six women with advanced dementia.

Preferred

I see a man playing a guitar

He’s wearing green, yellow, red

He’s wearing a hat

He’s singing

I hope it’s a happy song

Someplace where there’s a crowd

Where people gather with friends

He’s singing loudly

It’s beautiful

What makes me happy is food

What makes me happy is when I’m preferred

Because I do

Sometimes I feel preferred

Sometimes not

It depends on who it is

We all see around here

 And now, I leave you with a collage of images of Bourbon Street.  Creatively yours,  Kareen

And now, I leave you with a collage of images of Bourbon Street.

Creatively yours,

Kareen

How to Creatively Address Fear with Elders

I took this photo, assuming the black snake was dead. Had I known he was only playing possum because of his terror of me, I would never have gotten down on my hands and knees and inched my face so closely toward his to get this shot.

Of what are you terrified? Are you afraid to talk about the elephant in the room? Some people are afraid to open a can of worms by avoiding topics such as death and pain.  I find this ironic, especially in the world of elders. I believe it’s important to tap into the stuff that’s brewing in their psyche and allow them to voice their most authentic fears, losses, and affections.

I decided to test my theory by addressing fear during a creative engagement experience with a gathering of Assisted Living residents.  Research concludes that fear is one of the four basic emotions which include happy, sad, and anger/disgust. After our standard warm-up, followed by a few scary knock-knock jokes, I asked them to name their fears so we could compare their list with research. Their list included storms, death, heights, burglars, falling, having teeth pulled, “losing all my money,” becoming “senile,” losing family, mean dogs, and of course, rats, mice, spiders, and snakes.

Then it got deeper. Here’s what happened:

ME: O.k., so we’re going to create a haiku about fear. A haiku is a poem with three lines. The first and third have five syllables, and the second line has seven. Let’s come up with our first line. The line doesn’t have to have five words, but five syllables.

SHE#1: Drowning.

ME:  Drowning? How about we make that work for what fear does to us?  Our last line could end with, “I’m drowning in fear.” There. Five syllables! So, what are we afraid of? Let’s pick out something.

THEY: Imagination.

ME: Perfect. That’s another five syllables. So, what about our middle line? It needs seven syllables.

SHE#2: The water came up too fast.

ME: The water came up too fast?

SHE#1: My husband drowned in a pond.

ME: Oh, my goodness! I’m so sorry. Thank you for not being afraid to share that with us. That must have been a terrible thing for you.

(I walk toward SHE #1 and give her a hug)

SHE#1: Thanks. I needed that.

I encourage you not to be afraid to address the deeper emotions of the individuals you serve. They are simply waiting for you to open the door, give them a voice, and embrace them.

Fear Haiku

Imagination

The water came up too fast

I’m drowning in fear

 

Creatively yours,

Kareen

 

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft