Swan Song

What Recharges Your Battery?

What recharges your battery? Read on to find out what I and a group of older adults discovered.

I periodically like to challenge myself by asking my residents to name one of the dullest topics they can think of. Then I promise to facilitate something creatively engaging. The latest topic, which was suggested by a 97-year-old Assisted Living resident, was battery acid! The duller and weirder, the more fun the challenge for me. As a result, the following insights and exercises occurred:

We learned, first of all, that this topic is more relevant than I would have initially guessed. Relevance, by the way is a crucial component in preparing creative engagement experiences.  Lead-acid batteries are an indispensable part of everyday life as they are used for automobiles, golf carts, forklifts, and marine and uninterruptible power supplies. Lead-acid batteries are especially pertinent to individuals in long-term care settings who rely on oxygen concentrators, powered wheelchairs, personal mobility scooters, and all things power when nature takes over.

Second, I learned that the lead-acid battery has the ability to supply high surge currents. Thus, the perfect catalyst for the Human Wave – remember what those look like at the ballgames, for example? The wave is an illustration of a surge which is a sudden powerful forward or upward movement. So, yes, with the help of some of my coworkers, we helped even the frailest of elders do the wave! We also played Human Surge, in which you squeeze the hand of the person next to you, and then have them squeeze the next person’s hand and so forth until everyone’s hand has been squeezed.

Third, I learned that besides inventing the theoretical principle of lead-acid battery, Gaston Plante’ discovered the first fossils of a prehistoric flightless bird, Gastornis parisiensis (named after him) in Paris. Can you smell the metaphorical potential here?  Thus, I asked for a show of hands from those who feel like a flightless bird, or who feel as if they’ve lost their wings. I then asked what they do to recharge their battery, acknowledging answers verbally and on a dry erase board for visual learners. Here are some of their answers:

-          Drink an energy drink.

-          Take a rest.

-          Keep busy.

-          Keep a smile on my face.

-          Take a time-out with a Pepsi.

-          Eat an energy bar with chocolate.

-          Listen to the music I like.

-          People who know what to say at the right time.

-          My wife.

-          An ice-pack.

-          Coffee.

-          Inspirational reading.

-          Good movies and television shows.

One resident said, “My battery is always charged.”

“What’s your secret?” I asked.

“I always try to have a smile, have a good attitude, and say ‘Good morning’ to everyone. Many years ago while working as a CNA, we were told to leave our problems at the door. One of my coworkers entered the building and started complaining. I told her to go back out the door, leave her problems there, and come back in. She did. The administrator noticed and asked what happened. She reported to him that I recharged her batteries.”

Finally, I was introduced to the term, “Swan Song.” A swan song is a person’s final public performance or professional activity before retirement. It’s based on the idea that a swan sings a beautiful song, having not sung much during his lifespan, right before death. Detchko Pavlov’s “swan song” was the publication of his prestigious scientific publication of his book, Lead-Acid Batteries, Science and Technology, Second Edition: A handbook of lead-acid battery technology. So I asked the residents to identify their swan song. I added that if they don’t have one, what might they still wish to complete? For fun, I encouraged them to make one up, using the following template: Before I died, I  ____________. Here are some of their responses:

-          I created a pill to cure all illnesses.

-          I sang in an opera.

-          I had a pre-heavenly visit.

-          I invented knob in my ear to turn age back and make my legs limber. I only did it once.

-          I was the first lady president.

-          I eliminated all hate and pain.

-          I received communion from the Pope at the Basilica.

-          I road on horses on Main Street.

The grand finale was an improvisational story-telling about a swan who sings beautifully just before he breathes his last breath. I invited some of my coworkers to takes turns creating the story, one sentence at a time, each sentence beginning with “And then.” One of my volunteers was assigned to act as the swan who interprets each part of the story through improvisational movement. Here’s how it played out (take note of that fact that one lady wasn’t impressed – haha- you can’t please everyone all the time!):

ME: Ladies and gentlemen, we now present to you The Swan’s Song. Once upon a time there was a lovely swan. She was floating along the water, when all of a sudden a gust of wind knocked her backwards and she got misplaced from the flock and was lost. (Improv volunteer flaps imaginary wings backward)

Improv Volunteer #1: And then the poor scared little swan flew around tried and tried to find her family. She cried and cried. (Volunteer swan pretends to cry)

Improv Volunteer #2: And then she met another swan. And they both started talking. (Volunteer swan moves toward a resident and makes squawking sounds)

Improv Volunteer #3: And then while discussing their lives; they discovered they were long lost friends. So they flew around together, around and around. But they both got lost in a storm.

(Volunteer swan locks arms with the resident and pretends they are flying together while everyone makes storm sounds)

Improv Volunteer #4: And then a big bolt of lightning struck and separated the two swans. (Volunteer swan jolts forward)

ME: And then, the bolt of lightning was so powerful that . . .

(Volunteer swan twirls around and makes loud squawking noises as she lowers herself to the floor and lies down)

SHE (a resident participant who has dementia): That was stupid!

ME:  (trying to ignore what I just heard) And then the swan passed from this life to the next and entered Swan Heaven. And she began singing a new and beautiful swan song that was more beautiful than one can imagine. The end.

In closing, Dean Francis Alfar, a Filipino playwright, novelist and writer of speculative fiction said, “One of the best ways to recharge is by simply being in the presence of art. No thoughts, no critiques. Just full-on absorption mode.” Knowing this to be true for myself, I do a weekly photo show for my residents. I leave you with a photo of a swan taken right before I got lost on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace in Germany. But that’s another story.  :)

Swan - Photo by Kareen King

Swan - Photo by Kareen King

P.S. I work with organizations that want to create a culture where older adults and their care partners are loved, validated, and creatively engaged. I would love to speak on creative engagement at your next event. Please contact me if you are interested in a keynote concert or workshop and I will send you a list of several compelling topics.