This will have to be a 2 part post, as there is so much to say, and even then, there will still be stones left unturned.
Ten years ago, I was an Art Therapy Intern at St. Paul’s Elder Services in Kaukauna, WI, and halfway through my 300 some hours required for graduation and enjoying every moment. I was in the midst of one of the most transformative moments in my life and wondering where the path before me would ask me to go. At this point, halfway through my internship in North East Wisconsin, I went to Paris.
As much as I would have loved to have physically visited Paris, I stayed firmly planted in Kaukauna, in a room not much larger than my soon-to-be New York City apartment. With my travel companion sitting next to me, we used our imaginations to fly from Appleton to Chicago to de Gaulle airports. Off the plane and to the opera with a woman who became a friend.
We went to Paris, to the playground, to the moon. We became artists, musicians, mothers, dance partners, and great friends. In this Tuesday session in April, we jumped from the reality of our lives and played, imagined, and created. In doing so, we developed relationships and found joy. We became wealthy in all the best ways.
You know those moments when you are having a conversation with someone, and suddenly their eyes start to sparkle leading to their entire being transforming? Those moments when a person goes from uncertainty to purpose? It happens when you start talking about a subject you or the other person is passionate about or when two people and dear friends are reunited. It happens, and the energy in the room shifts, and strangers become playmates, then friends. Friends and family deepen their relationships and develop new memories. We tap into a central part of life that is often covered up by loss, pain, stress, and in this case, dementia. My trip to Paris that day with this woman who, on the first day, introduced herself to me as “Trouble” with a laugh and a smile, had that sparkle-in-the-eye moment with me that day. It was an Art Therapy internship, yet we tapped into a different side of ourselves, not creating on paper or with a table full of materials, but with our dreaming and stories.
I have frequently said that theatre people are my favorite to work with when developing and facilitating programming for those living with dementia. Individuals who know the art of storytelling in this way jump into any situation, forget memory and ability and can become relational with an individual. They know how to tap into those eye sparkle moments. They know how to engage and create with little knowledge about the individual and zero materials. Do you recognize how important and rare these moments can be for those involved? When we can jump into the world of someone else without questions, we are validating the experiences of another. We are helping them not feel like Mr. Cellophane. We are able to serve and minister. These moments can form in very imaginative ways, but also in very real ways. Just as I went to Paris, we could have easily talked about her love of the arts. Just as we traveled to the moon, we could have recognized the need for a connection, the need for human touch, eye contact, and words of warmth.
So where do we go from here? Well, that will require some reflection, honest conversations, and a leap of faith into the unknown. It requires changing how we hire and set up volunteers. It asks us to enter into a dynamic partnership with play, imagination, and those who help foster that within us, both for joy and for healing.
End of Part 1. Check back later for Part 2.