In this post Karrie Marshall, author of Puppetry in Dementia Care, describes using the power of puppetry to engage with emotions that go beyond words and memory, and how she was met with a tentative response on first suggesting the idea in adult care work.
When I first started talking about joyfulness in relation to dementia, people found that a difficult concept to consider. At conferences I noticed the majority of terms used to describe dementia conveyed a sense of hopelessness and despair. These difficult feelings are of course very real for many family carers and individuals facing a diagnosis of dementia. However, it is also important to acknowledge the real capacity for humour, positive relations, creativity and enjoyment.
My talks give examples from the book of uplifting experiences shared by people with dementia and their carers (family or paid staff). I love hearing members of the audience talk about their own experiences. People generally want better services or want to know how to improve dementia care. The talks help people see this is possible.
Throughout my career in nursing and lecturing I found people learned more and communicated better in a creative environment. My specialty is puppetry, but all art forms can reduce stress, increase confidence and improve interactions with or without words. I am interested in how we (professional care staff, family carers, relatives, artists and the general public) can use this knowledge to improve quality of lives.
Recently my talk for the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute focused on positive communication. Talks for local libraries give practical tips and creative ideas from the book. My university talks focus on person-centred care and compassion, which are major themes underpinning the book. The talks also offer opportunities to share best practice with carers and artists.
When I first introduced puppetry into adult care work, there was a hesitant response! But puppetry has a long history with adults (making social and political comment). There is also a magical quality to puppets. They engage with emotions that go beyond words or memory. I love the stories in the book that show how people with dementia focus on the puppet and completely ignore the puppeteers, the staff and the relatives!
One of the biggest challenges carers face is around relationship changes. Sometimes the nature of the dementia may mean reduced recognition of a loved one. For others the relatives are dealing with mood swings or behaviour changes. Learning how to let go of the relationship they used to have whilst maintaining a loving and meaningful connection is complex. In the book I show how this process is possible through creativity. First I explore a theory about relationships between care-givers and care-receivers that describes a progression towards alienation. During talks, audience members give examples of feeling they are losing someone, or of drifting apart.
However, over the past ten years of working creatively with families and care staff and people with dementia, I know people can go beyond alienation. They can re-emerge into a different way of connecting that has moments of pure joy and wonderment. People have different ways of reaching this, but generally we find people with dementia get there faster!
Each experience of dementia is individual, and that is a key message in the book. Not everyone wants to be actively engaged, so we discuss the therapeutic use of silence and breathing in unison. Often I find this leads to participation. It works because people tune into where the person is. The book explores theories about human motivation and the importance of matching individual needs.
One of my favourite stories is about a man who people thought might not be interested in anything to do with creativity and certainly not puppetry. He turned out to be one of our most enthusiastic participant puppeteers. He helped make a puppet of himself (instructions are given in the book). This had great presence and character, as so many of the ‘soul puppets’ tend to have. I often get a sense that the work helps us see people more clearly. Creativity has no boundaries.
It takes a long time – perhaps a lifetime – and a lot of practice to really understand what it means to be person-centred, to genuinely consider and positively respond to individual preferences. Yet this is at the heart of good dementia care. Writing the book helped me explore how we can better do this, and highlights the importance of support for carers to connect confidently and creatively.