The Power of Play

By Jane Verity ©

 ‘The child in me knows to play and love and wonder…it opens the door to my heart, and my life is enriched.’
Louise L. Hay

No one seems to be able to provide a definition that comfortably embraces all aspects of adult play. However, it is possible to describe play through its benefits.

Play brings out creativity, boosts our energy levels, makes us laugh, helps us learn, gives life to our imagination, builds bridges between people, cultures, beliefs and languages, helps motivate us , and gives us  joy and pleasure. In short, play rekindles the Spark of Life.

Play has these same positive effects with people who have dementia. However, when it comes to the combination of play and people with dementia, there are concerns that play could be demeaning, patronising or infantilising. This belief is based on the idea that play is only for children and not for older people.

For play not to be demeaning for a person with dementia it has to come from the heart. The person using play needs to be comfortable with his or her own inner child so that playing becomes natural and is filled with respect and dignity.

It has been my experience that carers who are successful in rekindling the Spark of Life  like to play and have unconditional love and respect for people with dementia. They are not inhibited by what others think and are comfortable using spontaneity, joy, humour, fun with words and body language. The key is to look at play and playfulness as an attitude  that can manifest itself in many different and positive ways.

If carers have the right mindset and attitude they can pick up on the person with dementia’s own unique way of expressing playfulness. Perhaps they love rhyming words or enjoy being mirrored (playing peekaboo) with love and cheekiness in the eye contact and body language. Playfulness may also be found when playing appealing group games using colourful props or games.

Playfulness expressed from a heart full of love can do no harm. We do, however, need to remember that the person who is in the initial stage of dementia is fighting to keep up a facade, and may not like to participate in anything that could be seen as childish. During this stage, the person with dementia may have very strong negative reactions to such games, but might respond fantastically to a playful attitude and approach.

When a person with dementia moves beyond the initial stage and lets go of this reality, they seem to lose these inhibitions and ‘blossom’ through play, especially when games are presented with playfulness, love and respect.

Rather than trying to judge whether an action or activity that involves play and playfulness is demeaning, infantilising or humiliating for the person with dementia, focus on the responses of the person. If they clap, smile, laugh and genuinely respond with joy, the activity or the action cannot be interpreted as childish for that person. Instead, it has warmed their soul and rekindled the Spark of Life.

‘We do not stop playing because we are old. We grow old because we stop playing.
Lisa Jane McInnes