Friday, 29 July 2011

Dignity – who needs it?

One of the many reasons I like drama therapy is that it is fun. There's no sense of therapist superiority. The person doing the work controls all aspects.
The license to be the child they want to be, to access play, ideas, fantasy is their choice.
Children do not have the constraints that adults learn to place on themselves but when adults attempt to play they can often trip themselves up. What do I look like? Will people think I'm silly?
A colleague told me of some relatives who were distressed that someone, an older person, was allowed to leave still wearing tiger facepaint. The person was very happy being a powerful tiger but for the family it was not dignified.
As adults we live every day with the judgements we place on ourselves as well as those others may make. They do have a place in life in the sense that knowing of such judgements may well influence our choices such as not drinking and driving, avoiding theft or violence not just because they are morally wrong but because people will not value us. Sadly this doesn't work for some. But these judgements can also stop us from simpler, harmless pleasures and things that may improve our whole lives.
When someone older loses their original sense of self it is bewildering and scary for them and their family and friends. Part of the individual's anxiety is a response to that shown to them by the people around them. If they find a medium that gives them joy and confidence surely we can accept this and not keep referring back to the dignity and style of someone who sadly no longer exists despite their physical presence. Of course this is hard but with people who see the benefits of drama therapy the transition is much easier.
We mourn the loss of the person we knew but at least can see the existing person is happy and having some fun.
If the way for this is by accessing play, so be it. What is wrong in something that all children embrace. We all have those memories. Just because the outward appearance is of a mature adult does not mean we should be denied ways that are effective and give happiness.
There is not a lot of dignity in misery. There is much more in the look of pleasure when the pirate chief takes the treasure galleon and sails into the sunset.
So heave ho me hearties – I may look daft to you but its' my ship and I've got the gold, jewels and a crew ready to make you walk the plank if you don't join in. And there are sharks in my ocean.
Still want your dignity?

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Marching to the same beat

This week was hugely exciting. Research undertaken with people with Parkinson’s Disease was published showing that with active methods, improvements to their lives in several areas can be made. The researchers at Roehampton University in the UK showed that when dancers worked with those having Parkinson’s, they grew in confidence, in their actual ability to move more and with more control over those movements. The dancers worked with the group to teach them ballet steps and movement to music. The fact that the dancers were from the English National Ballet was the icing on the cake.
There is much to be considered here. Even moving more and in positions that allow the lungs better movement will always help. More oxygen to our bodies can only be a plus when we make that increase through our own efforts. But this work goes a long way past this. The rhythm, the music and the imagination that goes into dance is stimulating many different parts of the brain.
The results that have been found here bear a close resemblance to those achieved using dramatherapy with the disabled, autism and those with dementia. The increase in confidence, in feeling less anxious and in the ability to interact are rapid and make a huge difference to the lives of those affected by such conditions - not to mention their families and friends.
One of my many happy memories is of a man who started out re-enacting gangster or cowboy movies. He ended by doing the haka for us. For non kiwis that’s the challenge given to important guests as they arrive, a mark of respect but intimidating. To see someone who had only sat in a chair do this, unable to walk except with a stick very slowly, on his feet unaided at full volume was uplifting. And he told us after that this was his gift to us.
We have the opportunity to do that research here, before the arrival of, what the current Minister of Health, Tony Ryall, has described as, the next major threat to our health system. That is the huge increase in those diagnosed with Alzheimers and dementia that will come with our aging population. It is already starting and in a small country like ours we do not have the resources to deal with this.
Let’s invest in some work that does offer positive results. So many people who are affected directly or have family or friends affected by illness that affects memory ,movement or interaction have indicated that they give up in despair because they lost hope. Here is a way that is safe, fun and rapidly beneficial and we haven’t even begun to explore its’ full potential.
Whoever you are, dance, sing, make up stories this week. Do it for yourself, for fun and take a moment to reflect on how much it could help so many.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Creating New Behaviours

Isn’t it amazing how people behave? There are so many ways in which we respond to
different stimuli. We have varying responses depending on where we are, or who we
interact with. (Even though this is often influenced by the way we feel).

We behave differently when we purchase our bus ticket, to when we are called into our
children’s school principal’s office. Our expectations/ previous experiences program our
body to such an extent that it almost automatically takes over.

For example; most people don’t enjoy going to the dentist. Our muscles tense up, our
breathing changes and most of us experience a sense of fear. Research has shown that
dentists are the least liked people to visit. (Is it also a coincidence that dentists have
amongst the highest rates of suicide and depression?)

How we subconsciously behave has an effect on our environment. It also has an effect on
ourselves.

Sometimes, it is easy to change the way we feel. When we leave the dentist, we feel
instantly happy/ relieved. However, when we are subject to a certain feeling for a long
period of time, it is harder to shift this feeling. And we might identify with this feeling to
such an extent that it takes over our rational thinking.

Taking our dentist example again, it is possible that the dentist feels it is he or she that is
not liked, and begins to feel that he or she does not deserve to be liked – our poor dentist
(not a phrase you are likely to hear very often!) might believe he or she is a horrible person,
and then take disproportionate or inappropriate action. An otherwise cognitively intelligent
person may make a cognitively disastrous decision.

Practising different feelings, and changing feelings, is an important part of drama therapy.
The people we work with are often stuck in a feeling. People with a disability or dementia,
or those working in management, often experience feelings of isolation or feelings of
depression. When a person feels isolated for some time, they become reclusive and
withdrawn. It needs some serious intervention to break this habit.

An important part of drama therapy is the interaction between people. You do something,
you get a response:
The cowboy shoots the therapist, the therapist dies.
An aunty gives you an elephant as a birthday present, and you become the envy of the
neighbourhood.
A robber steals the Queen’s crown jewels and the robber gets chased by police.

By practising different emotional responses and behaviours in drama therapy, a person
becomes more resilient and adaptable to situations outside the therapy room. The brain
stores all experiences, and doesn’t discriminate between reality and non-reality. The body
uses all we experience to form a response.

It makes sense that a person who feels worthless needs a lot of positive experiences - where
they are in charge (the boss), being cared for, happy, funny, etc. This counter balancing
helps the brain to have a wider range of experiences to pick from.

Returning to our dentist example again, if you are (or know) a dentist, you may wish to
pass on that the happiest dentist I have ever met always wore a facemask with bunnies
on it during treatment. Creating this non-threatening character by using a prop, made
his patients feel at ease, and his great sense of humour allowed him to deal with negative
feelings head on (and consequently he felt unafraid and not marginalised).

If you are going to the dentist soon, good luck, and remember that your dentist may be
feeling ill at ease too!

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Past is Another Country

One of the hardest things any person or family faces when someone they love has dementia is that the person they love is physically there but the personality is gone. Many struggle with this. They believe “If only” the person tried hard enough or was reminded enough memories would return. It can become an agonising struggle for all. There is no chance of any outcome other than frustration on both sides and increased anxiety for all.
It is understandable that often people walk away or find contact very difficult.
One of the most positive aspects of drama therapy in these circumstances is that it offers a relaxed, fun way to reconnect. Often we base our knowledge of older people on who they are right now, forgetting that they have lived long, full lives. The recent upsurge in interest in genealogy shows that many of us are interested in the past yet how many of us really know our parents and older relations? We may think we do because they may well have repeated many stories but it is often amazing to find out just what they have achieved.
Last year the community based group we worked with had a huge and varied history. Fortunately the people working with the group knew them well and had recorded their individual histories.
It is these earlier memories that are clear and thus accessible. These are the memories that people share when we are developing stories with them. It is so much more powerful if we know what these memories relate to.
It is almost miraculous to watch someone engage who has been totally detached and uncommunicative. When we enter their world, even if it is one from many years ago, we are there with them. It is familiar to them so not a source of worry. It puts them in control at a time when the world may feel very confusing and scary. I loved the quiet man who got asked to do a song in one of the plays and produced not just a pop song but a stunning operatic aria. His family knew of this but felt it might be painful for him to remember as he now no longer sang. The smile on his face as we all applauded said this was an area to talk about with joy. Each person had huge talents and their own fascinating experiences.
An additional bonus is that when families get involved they can continue a relationship that is positive and not a burden. They sometimes learn new things about a person they thought held no surprises. They get to enjoy being with the person again. Being relaxed and happy is something we all benefit from.
Making it easier for them to stay at home for as long as possible can only be an advantage. A more positive relationship is good for the individual but think what it could do for loving but currently exhausted care-giving families.
This is one of the areas we are keen to do more research in. This method is non invasive, does no harm and is fun. And it improves daily life for all using it.
There is nothing to lose for any of us and everything to gain.
We hope to offer a programme for people and their families in the community soon so keep watching – get to know your family and have as much fun as you can.