If It Works for Everyone Else, Why Won’t It Work for Those with Dementia?

Part 2 of the conversations. To read part one check out We Went to Paris


Last time we talked about going to Paris, play, theatre, imagination and those sparkle-in-the-eye moments. How by engaging creatively, we can validate and support others.

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 with people who help foster those elements within us, both for joy and for healing.

We need to look at both the clinical, social, and artistic elements involved. We need to include Drama Therapists, Theatre Artists, and many others willing to help us explore the various moments we encounter on this dementia, caregiving (and aging) journey.

We need to do a better job at inviting Drama Therapists into this conversation of engagement. For just as easily as we went to Paris in 2011, we could have gone to Paris in 1940. What then? Would the eyes sparkle, or would they dim? Yes, we found joy that day in 2011, but we could have easily found pain. We mustn’t shy away from this pain or other “negative” emotions and behaviors, for they too deserve to be recognized. You don’t need a degree, certification, or acquired skill to be present for someone in their time of joy OR their time of sorrow. However, sometimes a clinical lens is best, just as other times an artistic lens or a spiritual lens is needed. There have been many times when I have found myself thankful for my clinical understanding as I navigate moments of pain and sorrow with someone who has kept some emotions hidden for far too long.

I often hear from Drama Therapists that dementia is a job for the Music or Dance/Movement Therapist, that they move on from dementia work because they want to do “deep work.” They speak about who they want to serve or who they have come to serve since leaving jobs in dementia and aging, and I am left baffled. They want to work with Veterans, PTSD, Substance Abuse, and so on. These are good and worthy areas of focus, but can’t you see? Those living with dementia are included in these other areas of focus. Mental health concerns do not evaporate into thin air with the diagnosis of dementia or a move into a care community. You are leaving the very people who need you, the individuals you say you seek to serve. Because of what? Dementia? Age? By thinking that someone of a certain age is only capable of joy and laughter and not also growth and healing, is incredibly ageist. The Master’s programs and professional network have done a poor job of changing this narrative, so maybe we can make that change happen together. Age and dementia are not indicators of one’s worthiness to heal from past and current pain, to grow into the person they want to become. They too seek the deep work you speak of from time to time.

We need to invite theatre artists of all kinds into this conversation. We need them to not only come and perform but to include others in the performance. We need them to not only create with those living with dementia in dignified and creative ways but also to go out onto the world and create (with their experience) new stories of aging and dementia. We need them to help us create dignified presentations of what it means to grow older today, and the trials that accompany that process. Often our theatre artists are working with this population to entertain, not realizing they can do so much more. They can enrich the lives of those they are working with, help them find their place when they feel lost, and live their purpose in a new way. The theatre artists can work with the drama therapists to explore ways to not only address mental health issues that may be present but also create and bring joy. Together they can accomplish both the current view of the drama therapist and theatre artist in aging and dementia and push it further into healing, health, and growth.

I am not here to bash the current approaches, but to send out an invitation, a cry for the courage to do the work, to explore greater ways to serve with the tools and skills developed. I know some remarkable drama therapists working with this population. I know many theatre artists who are transforming lives in their community through their work in aging and dementia. To you, THANK YOU!

To the drama therapists and drama therapists in training, I invite you to step into the unknown, to break the mold that has been set before you, and to stay and explore this work.

To the care communities and organizations who are hiring drama therapists, don’t simply put them in manager positions because they have their Masters. Allow space for them to do what they have trained to do, to work with the residents and clients in exploring the very people they want to become, and addressing mental health. Hire and support actors, directors, and scenic artists as CNAs, office staff, activities staff, and permit them to play. Yes, we seek to bring joy and creativity, but we also dare to help others heal, regardless of age and regardless of other health issues one might have.

Theatre (and the arts in general) are not the end all be all to successful work with dementia, nor is it the solution to cure all ills. It instead should be part of the conversation, one of many elements we can pull from to live fully alive with or without dementia. It is this one element that shows us how we have failed to care for those our care communities and organizations serve. It is a reflection of how we don’t seek to care, but keep alive. We don’t seek to heal but keep breathing. Let us step away from existing and move into living fully alive.

For a little bit of inspirations as to how to start to incorporate play, theatre, storytelling, and the pursuit of a dignified life in care, check out timeslips.org. It is a great launching point if you don’t know where to start.

Published by Kathryne Fassbender

Creative Gerontologist, Speaker, Catholic Innovator. I am also the granddaughter of someone who lived with Vascular Dementia.

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