One of our strongest bonds is that we are all seeking hope and healing. We all want to live fully, with the strength of family, friends, and community around us, while exploring the depth and richness of this life.
In April, I facilitated a dementia and theatre workshop at the NYU Theatre and Health Forum. While attending this forum I witnessed this very desire for hope and healing. I saw the great wedge that gets in our way of living in hope and health, disappointed to hear time and time again how our elders are “able-bodied” or they are “declining bodies.” I cannot help but wonder, in a field that is striving to become innovators in care, why we are becoming the very roadblock we are trying to dismantle. Why do we silo those we seek to serve? Are we, in trying to “heal,” encouraging “the other” to occur instead? What is the role of the theatre artist, the drama therapist, and the theatre educator in transforming this thought process? What would happen if we worked to blend academia, medicine, and creativity, with human dignity, working in one true visionary partnership? There is a need for worlds to mesh, and an offering of an invitation into beautiful creativity if there is hope for healing. How do we blend head and heart? Medicine, academics, and human desire? Where is the line between helpful and demeaning? If we are not acting as visionaries are we complacent? How does our faith play a role in this hope and healing? How are we reinforcing this negative idea of aging by the way we approach our work?
So, what really is the role of the arts in aging? How can theatre truly enter the landscape of our health? Studies have shown the importance of creative engagement, but how can we take it one step further to dismantle the idea of the “able-bodied” and “other?” If we are to use theatre as a way to transform our health and our community, then maybe we need to transform ourselves and take a step away from ego, high art/low art, the political, and our perceived ideas of what aging is, and work instead from the point of beauty and humanity. Theatre is a great educator, and working in the development of theatre even more so. The process of creation and performing a story not only can help us understand aging and dementia, but can also be used to help children in our schools, doctors in our hospitals, and family care partners break down stigmas and prepare our communities for better encounters with individuals living with dementia. In this creation process, we come together to research, learn, play and explore the topic, develop a show, and perform it for the community. A key element to making all of this work though is the inclusion of those with dementia, of all different types and stories. It is from them that we will learn the boundary line, the place where helpful turns into demeaning, where good turns into harm, where head separates from heart.
When working in this field, it is those with dementia that will be our true guides and experts. We can look to the work of Anne Basting and Dr. Bill Thomas to reinforce the importance of theatre and storytelling. If we long to create a better world for us as we age, solving the deep-rooted trials of our care communities and communities at large, we need to better understand, explore, and play with the very real experiences of our neighbors currently living with dementia or in our care communities. It has saddened me that aging, while “trending” is still seen as a “less than” population, divided into two groups based on their perceived ability. It is a population less popular to study and work with giving way to other “spotlight” populations. I believe strongly that theatre is THE key to shifting the stigma of aging and dementia. Instead of a lecture or a one-hour training workshop, if we use theatre, we can show others (and ourselves) how to transform the field. We can become the visionaries that play with these difficult topics. We can show our care partners how to enter the world of aging and dementia, therefore transforming the approaches needed to no longer be complacent, easing stigmas, and no longer fearing our own aging and death.