The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga has suggested that play is “at the heart of human activity and is what gives meaning to life,” regardless of age. Recently, researchers have extended the investigation of play to the role that it can take in dementia care. The authors note that here, “Play is not used to infantilize and trivialize people living with dementia, but as a way to explore potential for expression, meaning making, and relationship-building later in life.” Play is described as a voluntary activity that functions as a source of joy and amusement, which consists of five domains: humor, physical spontaneity, cognitive spontaneity, social spontaneity, and manifestations of joy.
This study examined the impact of two participatory arts programs for individuals with moderate or advanced dementia: TimeSlips and the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. TimeSlips involves group storytelling, where participants and facilitators create a story based on images presented to the group. The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project involves an improvisational method to create new poems that are then performed in a call-and-response manner. Participants took part in both of these 10-week arts programs, each while the researchers took notes and created transcripts of the sessions. Prior research on play and dementia had focused on outcomes such as health, cognition, and behavior; through a close reading of their transcripts and notes, these researchers looked instead into the impact of participatory arts on opportunities to socialize, use imagination, and escape the realities of being a patient.
The researchers came to three main conclusions: First, participants learned to play again, overcoming their doubts and insecurities about being able to succeed in the arts activities. Second, they showed the power of playing together, accepting differences and building an intimacy with other participants. Lastly, the participants often showed expressions of joy, from feeling interconnected, from humor and from displays of contentment.
Overall, this study suggests that play can be a valuable, meaningful part of life at any age, regardless of cognitive impairment. These participatory arts programs offer individuals with dementia an opportunity to engage, connect, and find joy.
Swinnen A and de Medieros K. “Play” and people living with dementia: a humanities-based inquiry of TimeSlips and the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. The Gerontologist. (2017). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnw196