10th anniversary awards and new beginnings

INTERNATIONAL ARTS AND HEALTH Conference convener Margret Meagher announced last week in Port Macquarie that the 10th anniversary conference would also be the last in the current format.

“It’s time for me to move in a different direction,” she said, pointing to wanting to spend more time with her family, and her work for the expanding Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail. 

“It doesn’t diminish my love and passion for Arts and Health, I just think that with these partnerships we will find different ways to deliver this message … This is another family to me.

“Together we will continue to build a bigger and better Arts and Health over the next 10 years.”

She was presented with the inaugural Golden Koala for her inspiration, dedication and generosity to Arts and Health, and particularly Creative Ageing, at the official conference dinner on Wednesday night.

Longtime UK friend and Arts and Health consultant Elaine Burke, was among those to pay tribute to Margret and “her ability to take anything and dream really, really big, and make it happen”.

“She has the capacity to talk to anyone, get to know them, persuade them and get them to do what she wants … everyone in this room is testament to that!

“I pay tribute to your big visions, but also your more intimate capacity to be very generous … I look forward to being part of your next adventure … wherever that may take you.”

The more ceremonial awards for excellence were presented on the final day, after the difficult task of having to choose from a field of some of the best, brightest and most passionate in their fields. 

Awards were presented by Margret, Gabbie and Port Macquarie creative ageing practitioner (and all around ‘doer’) Lisa Hort. @VisitNSW #NewSouthWales #artshealth18

Words: Alison Houston   Photos: Nadine Fisher

Congratulations to:

  • Arts And Health in Hospitals and Health Promotion: Michelle Cripps, for her outstanding work with Adelaide Hospital.
  • The Arts and Community Health: Louise Faulkner, from NSW State Forests.
  • Arts and Health in Regional Australia: Jude Crabtree and Carol Gaston for their work in the APY Lands.
  • Arts and Health in Education and Research: Mary Robson, Durham University.
  • Mental Health and the Arts: Mahlie Jewell, mental health advocate.
  • Creative Ageing: Michelle Royce, Sawtell Catholic Care of the Aged and Dale Feeney deputy director care services at the Whiddon Group, Laurieton.
  • National Leadership in Arts and Health: Adrian Boag, program producer National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
  • International Leadership in Arts and Health: jointly to Alice Thwaite of Equal Arts, UK, and Gary Glazner of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, USA.
  • A special award for Gabbie Carroll: conference chair and Margret’s partner in making things happen for the past 10 years. 

ACAH head heralded as ‘a beacon for our community’

Mayor Peta Pinson hailed Macquarie’s Margret Meagher as “a beacon for our community”.

She was speaking at Port Macquarie Museum on Monday night at the welcome reception for the Annual Arts and Health Conference, which has returned to Port Macquarie to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Margret Meagher is the founder and force behind both the conference and the Australian Centre for Arts and Health, as well as the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail and Festival.

“This woman is a powerhouse,” the Mayor said in her acknowledgement. “You are a wonderful ambassador for Port Macquarie.”

She also welcomed former NSW Governor and ACAH patron, Professor The Hon Dame Marie Bashir, saying, “I feel like I’m with royalty”.

Margret Meagher echoed that comment saying it was “incredibly special for me personally and for Port Macquarie in general” to have Prof Bashir at the conference.

 “She is so enthusiastic about the arts, and she is such vital person and a great embodiment of creative ageing,” Margret said.

Prof Bashir won many fans at the reception, as she acknowledged the First Australians, who created and were custodians for our first art and music.

Referring to “the boat people who came to Australia from 1788 onwards,” as taking the country in “another wonderful direction”, she said, we are reaching heights that would never have been believed 200 years ago.

“We live in paradise here,” she said. “We are both proud and humble and ever-anxious to keep the standards of humanity high.”

Professor Bashir said that, as a psychiatrist, she had witnessed the arts, in all their forms, enhancing many aspects of our health. Port Macquarie MP Leslie Williams said Margret Meagher had successfully achieved change in government policy through her work with ACAH, her contribution to the development of the NSW Health and the Arts Framework and as member of the NSW Ministerial Advisory Council for Ageing, which is driving the development of a creative ageing strategy for the Government.

“We as a local community and as a state owe you a debt of gratitude for what you have done,” Leslie Williams said.

The Port Macquarie community had “absolutely embraced creative ageing” reflected in it also becoming the first Dementia-Friendly Community in Australia.

The International Arts and Health Conference, she said, had inspired programs and activities throughout Australia and the world.

Margret Meagher, in turn, pointed to the vital support she had received from Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, the State Government and the community.

“It’s been a journey of collaboration – that’s the wonderful thing about Port Macquarie; we all work together,” she said.

The 10th International Arts and Health Conference is at Sails Resort from November 13-15. 

Alison Houston

Photos: Nadine Fisher

November is Arts and Health Month: Indulge

THE ARTS ARE LIKE CHOCOLATE  for the brain – a sweet treat it craves but, in this case, 100% good for it, according to US psychiatrist Gene Cohen.

November is Arts and Health Month and that’s a great chance for us all to indulge in what makes our brain happy, and for those in the health and ageing industries to explore the positive effect of the arts on mental and physical wellbeing.

From November 12-15 more than 80 experts in the field from Australia and internationally will present their work focusing on mental health and resilience through the arts at the 10th International Arts and Health Conference in Port Macquarie.

Conference convenor and Australian Centre for Arts and Health founder and executive director Margret Meagher said it was now recognised that engagement in the arts – that is, actively taking part – lifts mood, increases confidence and self-esteem, can reduce the length of hospital stays and reliance on medication and improves heart and respiratory function.

“The case for arts in relation to health is very clear, and people in government are coming to the realisation that prevention is better than cure,” she said.

Grand Gestures dance group: A group of older people who have now formed an independent collective after being developed and supported by British-based Equal Arts. Equal Arts co-director Alice Thwaite is among 12 international speakers at this year’s conference. Photo: Courtesy Equal Arts

The financial savings to government amount to millions on the basis of reduced reliance on medication alone.

Margret Meagher believes the power of the arts comes from a combination of activity, sense of purpose and achievement, as well as the social connections made.

And socialising, particularly in our increasingly digital world, is vital.

“A research paper in the US made the statement that loneliness is more detrimental to health and wellbeing than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more likely to usher in an early death,” Margret Meagher said.

While still in its infancy in Australia, in the United Kingdom the medical profession has already accepted Arts on Prescription as an effective treatment for many conditions.

Last month British Prime Minister Teresa May announced National Health System funding for a “loneliness strategy” to encourage GPs to refer people to social activities including ballroom dancing, art, cookery and music groups rather than handing out pills.

Dancer Liz Lea shares the story of her new theatre work RED, a critically acclaimed one-woman show which explores her journey through illness and recovery from endometriosis. Photo: Lorna Sim

Figures there suggest that 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, and three-quarters of GPs report seeing up to five people a day due to loneliness-associated symptoms.

Margret Meagher believes passionately in the ability of the arts to impact the mental and physical health of people of all ages and nationalities, breaking down barriers to understanding, communication and empathy, and helping to stop discrimination.

With the world’s older population coming to the point that it outnumbers the young, and dementia the single greatest cause of disability in Australia’s over-65s, Creative Ageing and Dementia are key areas of practice and research to be explored at the conference.

“There is no known cure for dementia, but the evidence is clear that engagement in creative activities can have a major impact on people’s quality of life,” Margret Meagher said.

Other specialist areas include the arts in relation to Youth and General Mental Health, Disability, Hospitals, the Environment, Aboriginal, CALD and Refugee communities, Palliative and Stroke Care, Creative Ageing Festivals and Graphic Medicine.

“It is a basic human right that all people should have access to creative activity because creativity is an essential part of the human condition. We are all born creative,” Margret Meagher said.

Organised by the not-for-profit Australian Centre for Arts and Health, the International Arts and Health Conference is returning to Port Macquarie, where it began in 2009, having travelled Australia in the years since, including being hosted for the past three years at the Art Gallery of NSW.  This conference  will be held at Sails Hotel from 12–15 November 2018. You can attend for a day or the entire conference.  To find out more go to www.artsandhealth.org  #artshealth18

– Alison Houston, writedirection gc

How poetic toads touched hearts and inspired the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail

THE GREAT POWER of the arts is to tell our story back to us, so we can see and appreciate our achievements and struggles, and view ourselves afresh.

It’s what inspired the residents of Yorkshire’s City of Hull, who were feeling rather neglected and forgotten, to engage with public art and, with other events, helped to generate such civic pride that Hull felt confident enough to vie for and eventually claim the title of UK City of Culture in 2017.

And it all started with a toad … or more accurately 40 toads, as part of the Larkin with Toads Festival – the inspiration for Port Macquarie’s Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail.

Elaine Burke, Arts and Health Advisor Consultant and former project developer and advisor to the Larkin with Toads festival, is one of the 12 international presenters coming to Port Macquarie for the 10thArt of Good Health and Wellbeing international arts and health conference, 12 – 15 November at Sails.

As Elaine explained, the 10-week-long 2010 multi-arts festival was based around famed English poet Philip Larkin, who lived in Hull for 30 years and had two toad-based titles. Hull’s largest public art project, it involved populating the city with artist-decorated giant toads, which “appeared like Christmas presents across the city one night”.

Each was the artist’s “take” on the city, and the aim was to reinvigorate the community and encourage people to “move around their city, come together and rediscover their own backyard”.

Many businesses were unable to see the value of sponsoring a toad sculpture … until they saw the public reaction and witnessed the increased local and visitor attendances.

“There was something inherently joyful about the toads,” Elaine said. While not an overt public health program, she said it had all the best results of one, bringing people together to feel good about themselves and their home, opening conversations, changing attitudes and gaining publicity for the city, which brought in tourists and dollars.

Until then, arts had been seen as something separate, something people did in their spare time or which ‘other’ people did. “This provided the chance for us to have a conversation with business in a different way,” Elaine said. “It opened the eyes of business to the arts as a credible pillar of the local economy.”

And it has had a lasting legacy, with the festival used as the exemplar to help convince the UK City of Culture panel that Hull could run large-scale events. The result was not just claiming a prestigious title, but a year of immersion in arts and cultural events of all descriptions.

“And it’s been incredibly exciting and very gratifying to see the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail and Hello Koalas Festival flourishing in Australia,” Elaine said.

It was at a 2011 conference that Elaine met and spoke with Australian Centre for Arts and Health director Margret Meagher about the success of the English project, and Margret put forward her idea of a koala trail. Elaine said that from the start it had all the hallmarks for success.

“The idea has to be right – relevant to the people,” Elaine said. “Koalas, as a native animal, their image and shape, have resonance with visitors and residents alike.

“There has to be a level of quality, so that it’s something that people and businesses want to be associated with. And the character of the creation and the artists’ images both have to be colourful, fun and joyful.”

Cogency was another important aspect, Elaine said. Projects need to inspire the public; for instance in the case of Hello Koalas, with the message of environmental awareness. They also need to allow the artist to appeal creatively, potentially link with other arts, let businesses see how they can connect with the idea (and what each partner gains from that relationship), and involve smart use of merchandising, marketing and technology.

Maintaining the relationship with the public, including through schools and education, is also vital, and being as inclusive as possible. “There’s no room for ‘winging it’; it all has to be carefully choreographed,” she said.

But while this may seem all very practical, Elaine said it didn’t diminish the “magic and intangibility” of the arts’ ability to speak to people and unite us.

“There’s a charm, joy and humanity in connecting with these koalas,” she said. “We know that creativity is innate; it’s pre-verbal …. Because it’s an unconscious thing, it’s a much more effective way of communicating.”

In the case of Hull, that message literally put the city on the map, with the spotlight on it as the City of Culture prompting the BBC to include it on the nightly weather map for the first time. “That was really symbolic to people who had felt so forgotten,” Elaine said.

One of Hull’s first events as the City of Culture involved seven nights of projections, animations and illuminations tracing the city’s history to music. The most powerful of these, Elaine said, was the simple message in giant letters, “We are Hull”.

“It still gives me chills,” she said. “I remember thinking, thisis the power of arts – to tell people’s story back to them.”

Art Psychotherapist and Arts and Health Consultant, Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, Elaine Burkewill present two talks as one of 12 international speakers at the 10thAnnual International Arts and Health Conference in Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid-North Coast from 12-15 November, 2018. To find out more go to www.artsandhealth.org  #artshealth18

– Alison Houston, writedirection gc

Festivals the path to better ageing

DOMINIC CAMPBELL, co-founder of Creative Aging International and a 2018 Influencer in Ageing, firmly believes we can create better ways of ageing.

And he’s challenging participants at this year’s 10th International Arts and Health Conference to leave his workshop and lead their own creative ageing festival within 12 months.

Always interested in aspects of equality, he has worked with disenfranchised groups from youth to the disabled, culturally and economically disadvantaged to the elderly.

His approach is that rather than focussing on the problems of ageing, we need to build on our assets, what we have in common, and celebrate it. That commonality is found in sharing music, dance, art and joy.

“When we talk about creative ageing, everyone thinks we’re talking about their older relatives, but it’s about us – it’s about you. If you want to live healthier for longer, you have to invest in ‘you’ now,” Dominic said. “Mgrandfather died at 65 – retirement age was there for a reason; people rarely lived a lot longer.

“When we look at global demographics, it’s an incredible miracle: we are living longer than ever before. It’s historic and unique.” The fastest growing segment of the UK population, he said, is 85 and older.

But it’s not an even playing field, with a startling 30-year difference between, for instance, how old one can expect to live in Sierra Leone (where total life expectancy is 50.1) and Japan (83.7 years).

“So ageing is chronological, but what’s also impacting on lifespan is environment, body health and wellbeing and the story you tell yourself – how your feel about yourself,” Dominic said.

So what kind of old are we going to be? If we only ever hear the negatives about growing older, he questions, why would we aspire to be old?

“We have an outdated story of what living longer means … We need to ask, ‘What are the riches in ageing?” Dominic said. The only way to find these is by listening hard to people’s lived experiences. What does it mean to be 97? What do people in their 70s, 80s or 90s want to do next?

And the place to encourage those discussions, to make a difference and help people to discover new opportunities, he believes, is festivals. “Festivals are places that people go to experience things; to try new food, new dance, art, craft or tunes … Why not new ways of living longer … discovering the future you?”

Festivals are also a way of connecting groups and agencies in new ways to build that better future. As former executive director of Ireland’s Bealtaine Festival of the arts and creativity for older people, Dominic has the evidence to back his words.

From 2006-2013, he developed the festival to comprise 700 partnerships presenting 3500 events annually. The festival ultimately reached and engaged 20% of the Irish over-65s population, from those in hospital beds to those who could only shuffle between rooms, to those who danced in halls or put on productions.

Dominic said because festivals were each one-off events, it was easy to create connections and one-off solutions and relationships which could be scaffolded to new futures in the wider world and to new opportunities when the festival rolled around the next year.

“It’s a lot easier to make a festival than to change the national public health system, but if we trial things for a festival and have positive outcomes, we can build on those assets,” he said.

For instance, poor infrastructure causing isolation could cause people to age beyond their years, due to difficulties crossing roads, going up steps, or poor transport links. But by fixing these problems for the festival, the authorities could instigate new long-term solutions.

“If we can make the world fantastic for say, 90-year-olds, it’s going to be fantastic for the rest of us too,” Dominic said.

As one of the first Atlantic Fellows for Equity and Brain Health with the Global Brain Health Initiative, Dominic also takes his strategy to America. He is working with four states to create one-day gatherings, which he hopes will build to longer festivals and become annual attractions.

And the concept can be as simple as Ireland’s Dawn Chorus, which asked Seniors if they would like to learn some songs and sing them at dawn on the last Sunday in May near water.

‘Near water’ came to be defined as everything from beaches, rivers and lakes to shopping mall fountains. There was even variety in when some people perceived dawn to be – with some thinking after 9am sounded a much better idea. But, as it was adapted, the Dawn Chorus brought communities together.

“Everyone thinks there’s a ‘right way’ of doing festivals, but that’s only partly true, people also have to be bold and try different things, and if it’s not working, figure out why …” Dominic said.

Dominic Campbell will present two talks as one of 12 international speakers, and 85 speakers overall, at the 10thAnnual International Arts and Health Conference in Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid-North Coast from 12-15 November, 2018. To find out more go to www.artsandhealth.org #artshealth18

– Alison Houston, writedirection gc



How Ned Kelly is helping London stroke patients

ROSE SAWKINS IS  one of very few actors who see their audience falling asleep as a compliment.

An actor-reader for over 12 years at London’s world-renowned National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Rose uses reading as a vehicle to reach people who have had a stroke, as part of InterAct Stroke Support’s service. For her, a patient sighing, falling asleep, laughing or crying can all be signs that she has done her job of connecting to that person, helping them to release tension, to relax and heal.

Rose is usually with each person for no more than 20 minutes, in which time she has to make the call for those unable to communicate as to what may be “right” to read or sing to them. Clues can come in all forms, from photos, books, gifts and cards at their bedside, to an item of clothing, or a quick word with visitors or staff.

A reading can be poetry, passages of literature, an excerpt from popular fiction or even a piece from the newspaper. Whatever the choice, the result is essentially a one-person show “with the volume turned down” for a one-person audience.

A favourite piece for Rose to share is Ned Kelly, with the tale of the Aussie outlaw’s last stand taking London stroke patients out of the ward, away from the wires and machines, to a dusty outback street Down Under.

“It’s a story that appeals to certain people at certain times,” Rose explained. “I use it when I sense that someone needs a bit of lead in their pencil ….”

“He’s an arsey, angry, determined, pained and desperate character, and somepeople on stroke wards relate to that. They feel their bodies have betrayed them. Some say ‘why me; what have I done to deserve this?’

“It (the reading) is incredibly energising, because it’s about someone fighting to the bitter end, as some of these people feel they are going to need to doThe stakes are high …”

Rose said it was “a very rare person on the ward”, whether patient, family, friends or medical staff, who wasn’t pleased to have the readers there. A year-long study at one of InterAct’s hospitals, St Thomas’s, found a significant change in the atmosphere in the ward after a reader attended, with a difference noticed in the motivation and energy levels of both patients and staff.

In some cases, she said, patients began practising speaking or physio exercises when they had been reluctant to try, or did something as simple as taking themselves off to wash or do their teeth, having previously not felt like bothering.

While passages last only up to 7-8 minutes, to match the listener’s concentration span, Rose said “reading the person” and communicating with them was just as important as “reading the words on the page”.

“Often the reading is a catalyst to get someone talking … it lets people be who they are beyond the strokeit’s ‘humanising’,”she said. “A chat can relax the patient enough to accept a reading. They can be feeling that no-one remembers who they are.”

Staff, naturally, focus on the practical medical side of caring for the patient, while those close to them often have expectations, wanting the patient to ‘feel better’. “But the reader’s job is to let them be just who and how they are at that moment,” Rose said.

“Mostly the reader is a narrator, and playing characters in the story, but your main role is as a person – someone who is there for them; a human voice … The average patient is on their own for 23 hours a day, so many are desperate for human contact.”

And that’s why, Rose said, it took “a certain type of actor” to do this job – “it’s not about us at all”. Neither is the performance anything “too showy”, instead involving gentler energy, imagination, focussed vocal and physical technique.

Trained in performing, writing, media, and arts and health practices, Rose described herself as “essentially an introvert, as many actors are”, but “fascinated by people”. She said the actor’s energy, ability to read people, situations and notice things were vital to this role.

Notes are left following each session, regarding how the patient has responded. In some cases signs of depression may have lifted, they may have shown an interest in a particular subject, or revealed their hopes and fears while, in others, the person may be barely conscious, or unable to communicate.

The reader also needs to be able to “contain” any reactions to the situation – the emotions, smells, sights and sounds of the ward. “Plus, it’s pretty damn sad sometimes,” Rose said. “Your heart just breaks for them, but you have a job to do and have to hold it together.

“It (the session) aims to stimulate the brain and encourage people to have resilience when they’ve had a massive loss – because that’s what a stroke is. And providing any sense of hope and a reminder of who the essence of that person is, is a big part of our purpose.”

Hear more about Rose’s work and InterAct Stroke Support’s move out into the community at the 10thAnnual International Arts and Health Conference in Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid-North Coast from 12-15 November, 2018. To find out more go to www.artsandhealth.org  #artshealth18

– Alison Houston, writedirection gc



And the winners are ….

Ita Buttrose and Bianca Balzer won Gold at the MACA Media Awards for their Today Extra segment, representing active ageing in a positive light.

The Healthy Lifestyle Tips piece highlighted the importance of Seniors making physical exercise a priority, and was recognised by the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee on Ageing (MACA).

“So many people think older men and women are ‘past it’ but they are so wrong. Gyms for seniors are an exciting growth area,” said Ms Buttrose, herself 76.

“Active older people are a wonderful example to the rest of the community. They are discovering that they can push themselves further physically than they thought possible and they’re rightly proud of their achievements.”

Minister for Ageing Tanya Davies said stories like this challenged negative stereotypes cast on older people and ageing, and highlighted “the real experiences of Seniors across NSW”.

MACA chair Kathryn Greiner AO said more than 100 nominations had been received for this year’s awards.

“The MACA Media Awards aim to create positive discussions about ageing and celebrate unique, balanced and realistic media reports on older people,” Ms Greiner said.

Other stories recognised included investigations into homelessness, the celebration of inspiring life milestones and issues surrounding retirement. Award winners included:

  • Current Affairs – 7.30 Report Team, Concerns Over the Rise in the Number of Elderly who are Homeless, ABC
  • News – Cathy Stubbs, Penisula Village Celebrates Sixth 100-year-old Resident, Central Coast Gosford Express Advocate
  • Images – Tracey Muir, Skydive Australia ‘Cheeky’ Couple Celebrate 73rd Wedding Anniversary with Wollongong Skydive, Illawarra Mercury
  • Regional – Cessnock City Seniors Festival Program Recognised at Local Government Week Awards, The Advertiser (Cessnock)
  • Advertising – Pimp My Ride – Smashing the Stereotypes, Feros Care
  • Special Commendation – “The Late Shift” SBS, Are we Entering the Age of No Retirement?

Left to right: Denis Mamo, Margret Meagher and Malcolm Moir from ACAH

Poetry makes a connection for people with dementia

INTERVIEWING GARY GLAZNER, founder of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project and one of a stellar line-up of international keynote speakers for this November’s 10thanniversary International Arts and Health Conference, is full of surprises.

You are never quite sure when he will burst into poetry, song, bring out his harmonica or require you to do a “call and response” with him.

But that is a large part of the success of his project – the element of surprise, catching participants up in something uniquely different from their everyday lives.

With Gary, poetry is not static, it’s a living, engaging creature, and in the call and response – repeating a line of poetry after him – you find yourself caught up in the images, laughing at the silliness of the words, or Gary’s emphasis, and lose your inhibitions.

It all began in 1997 when Gary received a grant for a poetry workshop at an adult day care centre, with the simple instruction “use poetry”.

Gary said that at that stage he knew little about Alzheimer’s and dementia but hit on the idea of using classic poetry that participants might have learned as kids.

What could have been a one-off turned into a lifelong mission when Gary started reciting the Longfellow poem “I shot an arrow in the air” and one of the attendees, who had been sitting, head down, not participating, suddenly raised his head, opened his eyes and responded, “It fell to earth, I know not where.”

Gary knew he had something in this impromptu call and response, something that made a connection with people with dementia, but it took another six years for him to convince anyone else sufficiently to gain further funding.

Within six months of getting that funding – just $300 “seed money” – word of what he was doing had spread and he had appeared on national media including TV’s Today Show and radio’s high-profile program All Things Considered.

You’ve given me back the person I used to know.

While he admits many people, including both those with Alzheimer’s and healthcare workers, groan at the idea of a poetry workshop, this is no stagnant recitation or poetry analysis.

It uses emotion, pacing, projection, movement, props – all the tools an actor would use in a play, and at the same time all tools which anyone trained can use at home, in an aged care setting or even in prison.

Using “echo memory”, an audio sense memory which lasts 4-8 seconds, Gary is able to engage people with even late stage dementia in call and response, an activity in which they can be successful.

Saying the words excites their language centres, firing the synapses and people’s affect brightens, there is laughter and more social connection.

“You would describe the sessions as joyful,” Gary said simply.

“There’s nothing wrong with going and sitting and watching a performance, a concert, but this is all about engagement, participation, being present with us and sharing the experience together.”

The unspoken message, he said, is “you’re not alone”.

And he said the atmosphere can “shift on a dime” from a silly poem like Banjo Patterson’s Frogs in Chorus – yes, this poet from Brooklyn, USA, knows more about our Aussie poets than most Aussies – to the emotive imagery of Judith Wright’s Winter Kestrel.

For participants with Alzheimer’s, Gary said the sessions were a release, with numerous family members saying “you’ve given me back the person I used to know” if only for a few moments.

And there is anecdotal evidence that the benefits can be long-term, potentially making new synaptic connections, with one group with whom Gary works regularly having learnt through repetition how to perform a particular poem, remembering the movements, little additions which members have improvised and, for one member, the point at which to sing.


Alternatively, after spending an hour in a session which he has led, participants will sometimes ask as he is saying goodbye who he is.

But that, according to Gary, is precisely why poetry and the call and response is so powerful, in that it is able to make connections, recall moments which short-term memory cannot.

“We don’t know enough about Alzheimer’s and dementia to know what’s happening,” Gary said.

“We still don’t know the cause and there’s no cure.

“Any improvement by the use of drugs to slow the disease is so small as to not be relevant.

“In poetry we can see there’s joy and laughter, so it is working on some level – for that hour people are having quality of life.

“We are now seeing state health departments here in the USA fund these programs and other arts groups, including Music and Memory, TimeSlips, and Opening Minds through Art, to help more people and carry out more research.”

‘Playfulness’ changes the quality of life for people living with dementia and their carers

In Conversation with … Professor Michael Balfour
Inaugural Chair in Applied Theatre in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences at Griffith University
How can a couple of comic entertainers give a dementia patient back a feeling of empowerment and positively change relationships with both their families and carers?
That is the background of Michael Balfour’s work Playful Engagement, a 3-4-year project carried out by theatre and dementia researchers, working across a number of sites with aged care provider Wesley Mission Brisbane.
It carried on from work done in Scotland and ultimately involved the same key artist Clark Crystal, with a second female talent, visiting people in care twice a week over a 6-8 week period.
With an ever-increasing ageing population, and as yet no cure for dementia, Michael said there was a growing demand to address social isolation, depression and quality of life particularly for those in aged care.
“The work has been adapted from the work of the Clown Doctors, who have been working for years in hospitals with primary age children, to help people in mid-to-late stage dementia,” Michael said.
The concept is that two “clowns”, a male and female, distinguished only by their red noses, visit individuals and “create a playful moment”.
The red nose is really just a signal that this is not going to be “a normal visit” by medical staff, friends or family, and sets the environment for some childlike fun.
The families and carers of those involved have been spoken to, so a little is known about each person, and the clowns also take note of potential “clues” in the person’s room so they can “play” on aspects of their lives.
But it is up to the individual how they want to lead the encounter; whether it results in play- acting, telling a story perhaps of their childhood, family or past work, a joke, even singing and dancing.
“The key thing is putting the person they are visiting in the driving seat,” Michael said.
The clowns might even set up a scenario whereby one is looking for advice on finding a girlfriend and asks the person how they should set up their first date.
Because clowns are traditionally seen as of very low status – too silly to take seriously – the person with dementia is able to easily take the upper hand and give their thoughts and advice, something they are not often asked for any more in day-to-day life.
Hence they get that feeling of empowerment.
“People in care are often surrounded by excellent health care professionals, but it is very task-orientated work. They have practical jobs which they need to carry out,” Michael said.
Through “relational clowning” that relationship begins to change as the carers see another aspect of their patient, and begin to view them again as a whole person.
In one case, a woman they were working with had become very anxious and aggressive as a result of her dementia, and that had become all that staff saw.
However, the clowns brought in Scottish music, reminding her of her background, and staff were amazed to see her singing along to the music, laughing and dancing around the room.
Michael said there were really three aspects of the work.

  1. Making a difference to the participants’ quality of life.
  2. Ensuring that family were involved in the work. They often feel that the person they know is disappearing as a result of their dementia, but this gives them a different approach and new way to communicate.
  3. The long-term benefit of changing the culture of the institution, so that staff feel able to work and relate more creatively with the people they are caring for.

This is just one of a number of traumatic areas in which Michael has brought the powers of applied theatre to work, having also dealt with theatre in conflict and peacebuilding, prison theatre, theatre and migration, and mental health and returning military personnel.
“They are vastly different areas, but there are massive similarities in the way we approach them,” Michael said.
“The key is to identify the people’s needs, where the arts might make a difference, and what sort of arts practice will work with each group and each individual.
“It can take 3-4 years just to understand the community you are working with.”
Michael said this aspect of research was rarely accounted for in grants, which primarily funded only the 6-8 weeks of actual face-to-face delivery of a program.
“But unless you’ve actually worked with those people over a long period, with that community and the stakeholders and have a real knowledge and understanding of their experience, it’s hard to make a real difference with the people you are working with,” Michael said.
“We need a multi-agency approach to achieve real sustainability and make the work more impactful in the long term.”
Michael Balfour is giving a plenary presentation on Play, Stillness and Presence: the Aesthetics of Caring Encounters at the 9th Annual International Arts and Health Conference – The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing – from October 30 to November 1 at the Art Gallery of NSW. – Alison Houston, WriteDirection