Josh Rice, a theatre maker and teaching artist, discovered the power of play in the dementia journey when he was still in graduate school. As part of a school project, he partnered with a senior living community on a therapeutic puppetry and improv-based program for people living with dementia.
Together, Josh and the seniors designed and made puppets, and created performances that included songs, personal stories, and comedy. As he worked with the new artists, he noticed people were using their puppets to tell stories. They expressed emotions and they enjoyed the chance to play and have fun. Staff applauded the participants’ short-term memory gains and tactile improvements.
“Plus, we were creating exciting work and performing for people,” Josh says.
One afternoon, a woman who was having a difficult day burst into the puppetry classroom. She was non-verbal but acted out aggressively in a way that could have potentially agitated others. As Josh and the students were rehearsing, she walked in and before she could disrupt the class, Josh made eye contact with her, and gently touched her shoulder. He quietly talked to her and invited her to join in or sit and watch. Within minutes she calmed down.
“I put a puppet in her hand and all of a sudden her language came back. It was like a switch had been turned on,” Josh says. This woman filled him with hope and inspired him. “I want people to understand that people who are living with dementia sometimes need us to be patient and keep giving them chances,” he says.
Being in the Moment
Josh knew the potential power of theatrical play and experimented with improv sessions for people living with dementia. The experiment worked.
“For improv, you have to listen and react,” Josh says. “The past or future doesn’t matter; it’s all about the present moment.”
He created a safe, nurturing, and creative atmosphere, offering structured improvisations, and invited his new improv team to play.
“They loved it and it was a thrill to watch them discovering new things and coming up with creative dialogues,” Josh says. “Play is an integral part of our lives and most of us need more of it.”