Nursing Home Activities

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 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


The water came up too fast

I’m drowning in fear


Creatively yours,



“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