Several years ago, I participated in a project that taught me something remarkable about aging and long-term care. The arts can transform long-term care into a meaningful experience — for people with dementia and those living independently. Allow me to explain.
The Penelope Project was a two-year effort to improve quality of life in a long-term care community by infusing it with the arts. (A PBS documentary about the project airs on many affiliate stations in May; check your local listings and see the preview clip below.)
At the end of the project, I sat in a focus group of staff, family, residents and administrators — nearly all of us talking so excitedly we were short of breath trying to describe the impact of this project on the care community.
We shared powerful stories. Staff noticed that one resident didn’t need her regular pain medication. Family reported that they were overjoyed to have a project they could participate in with their loved one — to be able to create something together. A resident in independent living talked of losing her fear of the nursing home. A resident in the nursing home talked of finding a reason to come out of her room.
The Penelope Project sailed directly against the prevailing winds in long-term care settings, in which activities like bingo are king, and where arts programming is done as a “one-off,” a one-time activity that doesn’t allow residents to build skill over time. This project allowed for growth and transformation.
Here are some reasons our project was different and effective:
Penelope dared to be challenging.
We, meaning me the director, those living in the long-term care facility and the theater professionals who participated, read Homer’s The Odyssey. We learned ancient Greek. We asked hard questions that human beings have wrestled with for centuries. What is love? What is home? What does it mean to “welcome the stranger?” How are we heroic in our own lives? Who is a hero to you every day?
Penelope invited people with disabilities to participate as equals.
We designed all arts activities (writing poems, creating dances, weaving, etc.) to be accessible to everyone, regardless of physical or cognitive disabilities. Great canyons have been dug between independent living and the nursing home. If a friend goes to the nursing home, often it means the end of the friendship. This project used a communal art project to bridge the divide.
Penelope went professional.
After a year of creative activities exploring the meaning of The Odyssey, we worked to create a professional play that was staged inside the care community for an outside paying audience. Professional artists roamed the hallways, working with residents and staff to write songs, create dances and stage scenes. You could feel the excitement in the air during their weeklong residencies.
I realize that not every long-term care community will partner with a professional theatre company. It took courage, a lot of organization and a commitment to learning to make the Penelope Project a success. But any long-term care community can yield the same benefits with their own — simply by engaging in challenging arts programming that dares invite people to invest, learn and grow over time. By transforming long-term care into a place where life’s mysteries can be seriously explored — we can in turn, make it meaningful.
You can learn more about the Penelope Project at thepenelopeproject.com
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