‘You see their eyes light up: The creative way this aged care home is enhancing social connection for its residents

It’s mid-morning in Hobart and at one aged care home, the anticipation is building. 

The room that’s usually reserved for lifestyle activities has been turned into a theatre, and residents are filing in. 

They’re not here for your standard show. This program is aiming to deliver entertainment, but also to build social connection and enhance interaction through drama therapy.

Taking centre stage, are puppets. 

Puppet play

A man performs beside two puppets

The show was designed specifically for aged care residents.(Supplied: Peter Mathew for Terrapin Puppet Theatre)

The pandemic highlighted the balancing act between clinical care and quality of life for Australians living in aged care. 

Drama therapist Dannielle Jackson has been exploring how puppetry could be used to enhance wellbeing in people in aged care, including those with dementia, for the past two years. 

“In the ageing process where things like memory or speech might decrease, the imagination doesn’t seem to,” Ms Jackson said.

Woman with blonde curly hair wearing a floral yellow and green dress standing outside.

Drama therapist Dannielle Jackson has been exploring how puppets can be used in aged care.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

“There’s so much opportunity there for the arts to play a role in social engagement and expression, in just being present and [for] meaningful interaction.”

She works with Terrapin Puppet Theatre, a Hobart-based company that’s created a new program titled Forever Young, for audiences in aged care homes.

Terrapin worked with residents at the Uniting AgeWell Lillian Martin home to design a program that would provide entertainment, create social connection and enhance cognitive function among older people. 

Lillian Martin Uniting AgeWell residents watching a puppet show.

Terrapin Puppet Theatre worked with aged care residents to design the program.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

The University of Tasmania was also involved in evaluating the process and ensuring the end-product was evidence-based. 

Terrapin Puppet Theatre artistic director Sam Routledge said it wouldn’t have been right to take a kids’ show into aged care.

“We needed to make something that was made for this audience,” he said.

Delving into residents’ memories of puppets, a recurring theme was Punch and Judy.

Terrapin Theatre artistic director Sam Routledge with residents at Uniting AgeWell's Lillian Martin aged care home.

Terrapin Theatre artistic director Sam Routledge with residents at Uniting AgeWell’s Lillian Martin home.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

“We didn’t want to do a Punch and Judy show, but we did want to use elements of that,” Mr Routledge said. 

“And where we’ve ended up is a story that uses the puppets of Punch and Judy to trigger memories within an older character that is also played by a puppet. It’s able to bring forward memories from their life.” 

The show involves slapstick, shadow puppetry and song to a group audience, with the storyline weaving between the present day and the older character’s memories from the past. 

‘You see their eyes light up’

Two performers with a puppet

The show explores an older puppet character’s memory of earlier life and love.(Supplied: Peter Mathew for Terrapin Puppet Theatre)

Mr Routledge said Forever Young was about entertainment first, but also the therapeutic effects of puppets. 

“It’s also about access … about bringing art and culture into these places in a way that suits the space and provides minimum disruption to their operation.”

Uniting AgeWell chief executive Andrew Kinnersley said COVID had had mental health impacts for people living in aged care, and Uniting AgeWell was always looking for opportunities for entertainment and socialisation for residents. 

“We talk a lot about clinical care and the importance of that, and absolutely that’s important, but we mustn’t forget the quality of life and wellbeing,” he said. 

He said Forever Young was helping create a community environment for residents and staff. 

“You see their eyes light up, and it just makes their day, it’s the best part of their day,” he said. 

A woman in a bed touches a cat puppet being operated by a puppeteer.

A resident meets one of the puppets.(Supplied: Peter Mathew for Terrapin Puppet Theatre)

“And if we can do that more and more, what you see is an enhancement in quality of life.”

Ms Jackson said the program could play a big role in addressing boredom and isolation. 

“Because inevitably it’s about connection and an opportunity [for residents] to see their own stories and their own life experiences,” she said. 

“And to feel that sense of reminiscing or hope, joy, fun, not shying away from the ideas that there is also an enormous amount of grief and loss in [aged care] settings.”

‘It’s not childish’

Male aged care resident in blue checkered shirt watching a performance.

Allan Webb says the puppet show was “very good”.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Resident Allan Webb was in the audience for one of the first performances of Forever Young.

He said it “suited some of the older blokes”.

“The bloke who was sitting in the middle with me … he really liked it and well, he really made me laugh when he started smiling and carrying on. It was very good.” 

Resident Desma Jackson also enjoyed the show, and could see the social benefits for other residents. 

“A lot of people don’t get out,” she said.

“So I do think it’s much nicer to have everyone together … And I think everyone became involved.”

Aged care residents laughing.

Resident Desma Jackson says she could see the social benefits of the show.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

As well as the group performance, Forever Young also sees actors take puppets for one-on-one interactions with residents who couldn’t make it to the bigger show, including those with dementia. 

“It’s not childish, or child’s play,” Ms Jackson said. 

“Puppets allow you to project in a way that is safe … Puppets, or empathetic puppets, allow social engagement and expression.”

After the one-on-one visits, aged care staff are given an observation note on how they might be able to creatively interact with each resident. 

Art can ‘make life better’

Terrapin plans to do a Tasmania-wide tour of Forever Young, and hopes to take it to other states in 2024. 

“We would hope that the effect of the work would be the effect that any really good art and culture can have on audiences, which is to make their life better,” Mr Routledge said. 

Elderly man painting on a small easel.

Allan Webb took up painting at age 82 to address the isolation he felt when he first moved into aged care.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

When Allan Webb first moved first into aged care three years ago, he found it hard to get used to.

“I thought, what the hell have I let myself in for?” he said.

He discovered it was difficult to talk to some of the residents with dementia, and even harder to make friends. 

“You meet someone here and take a liking to him or her, and strike up a decent friendship and in a matter of days they can die on you,” he said. 

COVID restrictions didn’t help. 

To keep busy, at age 82, Mr Webb took up drawing and painting, hanging pictures on his door that staff and other residents would stop to talk about. 

His room is now covered in bright paintings. It’s a hobby that has helped him keep busy and feel happier in his new home. 

Now Mr Webb plans to paint what he saw at the puppet show, from photos taken during the performance. 

“I’m not too bad at it now, for an old fella,” he said.

Since he started painting he’s held a small exhibition, and even sold a couple of his works. 

“That made me feel good, selling pictures,” he said.

“Made me feel like I’ve still got a bit left in me yet.

“I’ll keep painting til I can’t paint no more.”

As for how he feels about living in aged care, three years in: 

“I’m pretty comfortable and I like it here now.” 

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