Today I facilitated two very different sessions at two residential aged care facilities on either sides of Melbourne...
The first was chair yoga for seniors with a group who I have been working with for many years now and know the resident at this particular facility well. It was a full house including one gentleman in a wheelchair who usually doesn't attend who is known to be inappropriate with female staff (I have been warned to beware of him). When I checked in with him at the start of the session he said 'You and me can make sweet music together'. His eyes were darting around the room and he looked quite agitated and fidgety as he said it. I responded with a gentle laugh saying we were all going to make music together with our breathing and stretching and moving our bodies......
We proceeded with the yoga session which has a general structure but it's not a pre-planned sequence so I that I can meet the specific needs of the group as they present themselves in the moment. Today one of the participants said she was having trouble staying awake (which is often the case due to the medications that they are on) and so I chose a more dynamic opening and warm up and generally found that big full body movements were the most engaging. Despite the many interruptions of residents being brought in/ taken out and nurses coming in to take temperature/ give medication, everyone started to really get into the session (this is not always the case as most of the residents have dementia and other mental &v physical health issues). At one point I invited the group to do a modification of the Lion pose and demonstrated breathing in and the sticking my tongue all the way out on the exhale with a loud growl to release anger......to my surprise everyone started to do it- now imagine a room full of 80-100 years old doing this......
There was a palpable shift in the room, the temperature changed, the mood, energy and focus of the group had completely transformed. After the closing meditation when I did a final check in with the same chap who was being cheeky at the start he looked deeply into my eyes for a long time with his own eyes wide open and said.....
He was so present. There was a sense in that moment that he was aware of himself, his inner experience, his external circumstances, his physical condition.....
And his loneliness.
'But it's better when you're here'
I just stayed there with him, making eye contact and placed my hands on his hands.
We stayed for what seemed like a long time in silence gazing into each others hearts and touching each others soul.
I finally responded softly- 'We are all here with you'
He couldn't hear what I said so repeated it very loudly and firmly.
I had to pack up and leave as I had another job on the other side of town so drove home, had a bite to eat, put on my make up and costume and headed off to a new facility to facilitate a multicultural dance experience with group of about 30-40!!
This was a completely different session, setting, group and facility and although I had never met the residents, I love that I can use the magic of movement, music and dance to form deep connections that seem to instantly arise and we move and play together. I began by handing out coloured bellydance belts to everyone (men and women) encouraging each person to choose their preferred colour. I began the session with a mini performance (to warm up the crown ;) ) and proceeded to learn some Bollywood moves, followed by Italian dance and finishing off with Greek dance (the Zorba!).
During the Italian dance part of the session, we handed out tambourines, hand bells and maracas- it's amazing how difficult it is to keep your hands still with one of these in your hands!!
After learning a modified version of the Tarantella (traditional Italian dance), I explained to the group that now we would do some improvisation and invited each participant to come up with a movement or a rhythm that we would all copy. I started to move around the group to stand in front of each person when it was their turn so I could mirror their movements and show the rest of the group so that we could all follow the same rhythm and gestures. It was a large group and just as I got to the very end I found myself in front of an old man, leaning back in his chair, listlessly shaking his hand bell.
I began to mirror his movement matching his energy and intensity.
We made eye contact.
I began to make my movement/ sound with the hand bell more deliberate and with a definite rhythm.
Now he started to match the strength and timing of my movements
I began to increase the speed
So did he
He suddenly leaned forward and began shaking his handbell directly in front of my chest
His eyes became shiny as he looked at me with more intensity....
I matched his fist pumping/ shaking with my hand in front of his chest
A cheeky smile started turning up one side of his face
We continued to shake our fists at each other
We started to laugh
It had turned into a bit of a competition but we didn't really care who won....we had a moment of pure connection.....
As I later found out, his daughter was sitting next to him watching this whole interaction. I met her on my way out in the car park and she told me about her father who was turning 100 years old this year. He had moved in 18 months ago but was not really interested in things like bingo which he hated. He used to be a farmer and lived by himself (his wife died 38 years ago) until a couple of years ago when he suggested to his daughter that perhaps it was time for him to move into a facility. Unfortunately he has not been getting out of his room much but after our session when they returned to his room he said he quite enjoyed that and asked his daughter if she had her car. When she said yes he told her to go home as he was going to 'see what else they had on today'.
This conversation brought new meaning to the moment I shared with the gentleman who was shaking his fist at me with a gleeful look in his eye.....
These are the moments when the inner spark is ignited and the light returns to the eyes where once there was no one home that have become the highlight of my work in aged care with the elderly and those battling with different stages of dementia. Both of these sessions were not traditional dance movement therapy sessions as that is not what the job title is and yet that is exactly what I am doing using the body and movement to communicate and connect on a non verbal level to explore their experience and provide movement interventions. I love reminding my clients and their families that no matter how unwell or lifeless or depressed we are, we still have the capacity for joyful embodied experience.
What is the therapeutic potential of joyful experience?
That is a question that has been in my mind for a long time now and perhaps one day we will be able to study this and provide empirical evidence so that we can then all be convinced and start to cultivate a culture where we prioritise joy.
In the meantime, I'm gonna spread that shit liberally everywhere I go and continue to experience delicious moments of presence and smile at the surprised faces of staff and family members as their loved one experiences the joy of being in the body and living in the present moment 💓