In this excerpt from the new JKP book, The Creative Arts in Dementia Care: Practical Person-Centred Approaches and Ideas, Jill Hayes stresses the importance of creativity and the capacity to play in the care of people with dementia.

“Play in its broadest sense involves a creative, fun-loving attitude to life. In imaginative play we have no expectations of ‘rightness’; we are open to the moment and we respond to it. We drop our tick sheets and we start to tango! We believe that there is a creative passionate person behind every implacable face. It is clearly distressing to walk into a room of people locked inside the shell of their condition. We must believe we can reach them to feel inspired in our work; through the creative arts we can make a strong connection touching the most closed of individuals. My colleagues and I have seen people with dementia surface out of the blue from inertia to boom out heartily the lyrics of a song, or to get up and waltz around the room taking our hands. The joy of life and connection with others is still there even when appearances suggest otherwise. Just before Christmas, I heard a till-then motionless resident call out to the carol singers ‘that was really awful!’; the tangy sense of humour felt refreshing and full-blooded.

In play, all emotions are acceptable, though clearly there must be ethical boundaries for safety. Aggression is often associated with dementia and staff and families need to be able to protect themselves against its impact. Again, creativity can help us here. If someone is ‘being difficult’ we can sing to them. Someone told me recently that the only way she could encourage their client to dress was by singing all her favourite songs. The songs formed a bond between the care worker and her client. Their relationship thrived on song. It became a relationship based on mutual adaptation, rather than coercion and compliance.

In working in dementia care we need often to let ourselves become foolish, unconventional, stop making sense. I have been thrilled to meet staff who at the drop of a hat will dress up, play the guitar, sing uproariously, dance around the room with scarves, waft a stretchy cloth in the air, or who have the capacity to sit quietly with someone without an agenda. It is this joy of the crazy and the still, this lightness of being, which is refreshing and life-promoting in the work that we do. We can play with balloons, blow bubbles, doodle, improvise. We don’t have to make a finished product. By creatively and somatically being with a person we can instil a sense of safety, of physical and emotional security.

Perhaps it would be helpful if we were less demanding of ourselves and others in the work that we do; less focused on dramatic or perfect results. Being satisfied with little things puts us in touch with our kindness, our ‘good enoughness’ (Winnicott 1985). Connections through creativity will probably not be Hollywood-style, they will often be simple and little. But we must not minimize this work. William Blake wrote about seeing the world in a grain of sand (cited in Malcolmson 1967). It’s the little playful creative moments that count.”

– Pages 25-26 from the Introduction of The Creative Arts in Dementia Care

Jill Hayes
has a PhD in Dance Movement Psychotherapy and did her postgraduate professional training as a dance movement psychotherapist at the Laban Centre in London. She now works as an expressive arts and dance movement psychotherapist in private practice and as a senior lecturer in counselling and dance at the University of Chichester, UK.

Sarah Povey trained as a voice movement therapy practitioner with Paul Newham, qualifying in 1999. Since then Sarah has been further enhancing her skills and expertise working with older people, both with and without dementia, and with people with learning difficulties. She currently works in care homes across West Sussex and Hampshire, UK.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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