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The gift of creative engagement!

Recently I was talking with a friend about writing this article and she asked me what the title was. When I told her I was calling it creative engagements she frowned and asked me what that meant. Until that moment it had not occurred to me that using a creative engagements approach as an activity coordinator was based more on my feelings than my actions, especially when working within dementia care. Sometimes feelings are hard to explain as I discovered whilst trying to describe them to my friend! I obviously needed to think this one through if I wanted to describe my feelings on such an important subject, so I decided to start at the beginning… and possibly choose a different title!

Being able to engage with someone on a creative level is a large part of being an activity coordinator; it’s a vital skill when you spend time with people whose cognitive skills have been affected by a condition like dementia…remember I said it’s more about the feelings? Part of those feelings come from a sense of playfulness, humour, sharing and acceptance of the people you spend time with.

Having the ability to meet someone in a shared space and connect with them to such a degree that opportunities for learning and growing are encouraged (yes learning and growing) and supported is still achievable! I firmly believe that people, even in the later stages of dementia, still have an ability and desire to learn, contribute and encompass new roles with our encouragement.

Through illness and aging, people lose the life and social roles they once had…that of father, wife, husband, mother, and worker. Meaningful creative engagements can help to develop new roles, such as that of artist, storyteller, singer and friend, and these new roles can create feelings of value, belonging and self esteem, especially for people who live in long term care. And yes, I’m back to feelings again, and I guess it’s because having the skill and understanding to support someone’s individual expression by singing and moving together or by making something with them is the jewel in the crown; it can make the difference and create those feelings of value for someone, no matter how fleeting those moments may be.

So how can we express creative engagement?

  • By making ourselves ‘present’ with someone, in that moment, in both mind and body.

  • Acknowledge them and see the whole person, not their symptoms. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it’s the foundation stone to creating a healthy relationship with someone living with dementia.

  • Get to know them, discover their history, skills and abilities, and how to develop these gifts into a new role.

  • Create enthusiasm for what you are doing together – if you don’t feel it chances are they won’t either.

  • Listen to their words, sounds and gestures – even if you don’t understand them you know they are still communicating with you.

  • Reflect their responses with your own words and movements.

  • Celebrate their contributions no matter how small.

  • Be aware of how you are feeling! People living with dementia can be sensitive to other people’s emotions. They will know if you’re having a bad day and respond with their own feelings.

  • Also, and this is from my own experience, follow the flow of energy that the person you’re with expresses…let them guide you.

An approach which is very much part of our own individual personal development within a social care role revolves around our ability to creatively engage with someone (and I’m sure each person who expresses it will do so in their own unique way) and has it’s roots deep within person-centred care (reference Tom Kitwood: Dementia Reconsidered).

So if an activity is the gift you share, whether it’s singing, reminiscence, art, bingo, or quietly spending time together, then using a creative engagement approach is the gift box it comes in. It’s a wonderful combination of ‘doing’ and ‘being’…to put it simply, it can make someone’s day and that’s a great gift.

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