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Studies show creativity and new experiences are breathing life into Aged Care Centres.

The power of the new – glamour, art and theatre breathing life into centres.

Two drag queens walked into an Aged Care home…
Sounds like the beginning of an early-eighties not-very-socially -astute joke, doesn’t it?

Well it’s no joke. It is, in fact, the beginning of a true and much more tender story. And in this story they didn’t just walk in, the drag queens moved in as permanent residents, and have been bringing verve to their fellow residents.

Tacky and Paris – two of the youngest and most glamourous residents at Abel Tasman Village, western Sydney – are there for a good time, not a long time! The self-made socialites, Motel Sisters in Care are a part of an artist in residence program created by non-profit organisation, Information and Culture Exchange. The 4-week program saw the pair take up residency over July and August this year.

Tacky and Paris’ residency at Abel Tasman Village was designed to give the permanent residents a break from the norm, uplifting spirits and injecting some razzle-dazzle into their lives.

Tacky says, “It’s about taking the extraordinary and putting it in to our everyday.”

And it worked, according to resident Colin Fenwick, the girls have injected a “breath of life” into the centre.

Though professional entertainers themselves, the project was not just about ‘entertaining’. The girls conducted makeovers, Zumba classes, aromatherapy, nail sessions and lots of cups of tea with their new friends. Sensitive to the residents’ perceptions the pair approached the project with caution, but within a couple of days Tacky and Paris were welcomed with open, now perfectly manicured, arms into their new home.

Clinical Manager, Sophia Markwell, says the creative project has been a success, resident geriatrician reporting a reduction in medication changes since the glamourous queens have been there.

Whether or not this has been a coincidence is hard to tell in such a short time, although past studies have shown new and meaningful activity can improve the quality of life for people living with dementia.

A 2008 study by Harmer and Orell explored ‘What is meaningful activity for people with dementia living in care homes?’ The comparative study saw 17 residents, 15 staff and eight family carers from three care homes look at the concept of meaningful activities for people living with dementia. A general finding from the study was that, “engaging in meaningful activities can largely contribute to the quality of life of people with dementia, at both an individual and social level.” (Harmer & Orell, 2008.)

And what is considered meaningful for older adults?

Without a doubt, creativity is meaningful to any age group. Interactive care, and an injection of “new”, such as the engagement with Tacky and Paris, for certain provides greater quality of care and brings new meaning for the residents. And science supports the value and meaningfulness of new experiences.

Neuroscience studies dictate, “when the ageing brain is challenged by activities and new experiences, it is able to form new connections by forming new synapses.” These particular findings refer to the plasticity mechanism as described in a 2004 study by Kramer, Bherer, Colcombe, Dong &Greenough.

Notable American Psychiatrist, Dr Gene Cohen, explored this very notion in 2005. Cohen, who said, “the nature of creativity has the potential to sustain and provide new challenging experience,” conducted a massive study, involving 300 participants.

Cohen’s yearlong study looked at the benefits of new challenges and creative programs for older adults. It involved an array of cultural activities for one of the groups, and a regular program for the other.
At the end of one year the group involved in the new challenges were reported to have improved health in many areas – both physical and mental. Cohen reporting the participants “gained a sense of mastery, experiencing social engagement, and the enjoyable, engaging nature of art.”

Back home a similar concept is being practiced in Tasmania in the form of an interactive circus. The Carnival of Here & Now is an arts initiative produced through Agency Arts Health in Launceston as collaboration between aged care facility residents, artists, musicians and TasTafe students.

An “immersive performance” – imagine theatre, sans theme or structure, performances that rely on free play and improvisation, the carny group describe what they do as “whimsical intimate exchanges working alongside curious solo antics”, an alternative to structured entertainment in aged care.

The touring variety show which began as an arts experiment features circus acts, ukulele recitals, dancing, a body painter and a band. In a short film created by Creature Tales when the program first started, the carnival was referred to as “an intimate exchange of high art and high care.”

In a similar vain to Tacky and Paris, creativity and intimacy play equally important roles in the Carnival of Here & Now, which involves a lot of touch alongside visual performance, bringing residents into the creative fold. Evident in Creature Tales’ short, the traveling carnival brings a very definite breath of life into the centres it visits.

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