Creativity has a huge amount of benefits for older people, including helping to provide an outlet for self-expression, helping participants to stay mentally active, creating a feeling of achievement and personal identity, and decreasing depression and anxiety. Here are some tips on how to carry out creative activities with older people …
1. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas
Trying something new can be incredibly nerve-wracking, especially when you feel you have an audience of carers and visitors to share their opinions on what you’re doing! However, the best way to learn is by doing, so try not to be afraid to give something a go, even if you’re not quite sure whether or not it will work out.
It’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t quite go to plan (this took me a really long time to learn, and in fact I’m probably still working on it!) but it is simply a learning opportunity to help you figure out what does and doesn’t work for a particular individual or group of people. The most important thing is to have fun, so as long as you have a laugh and a chat as you go, who really cares if an activity doesn’t quite work out?
2. Use lots of props
Props are a great way to engage older people, and especially those with dementia who may be particularly receptive to sensory activities. For a creative writing activity, for example, it is great to use lots of props to create a theme and provoke memory and imagination – such as music, smells, pictures, and textured, interesting-looking objects. You could put together themed boxes of objects to pass around, or see if your local museum has any you can borrow – such as the themed memory suitcases available from the House of Memories programme at the Museum of Liverpool.
Also, for arts and crafts, don’t forget to embrace your inner Blue Peter presenter and provide an example you made earlier. It can be hard for people with dementia – or anyone in fact – to envision a project based simply on description, so providing an example can help to motivate people to take part in the activity and help them to stay focused on what they are doing.
3. Try to find a way around obstacles
When working with older people you will inevitably face challenges in terms of mobility, visual impairment, and lack of speech – but try not to rule people out from activities based on what you think they can’t do. Instead, try to think about what they can do and how you can incorporate that into your activity. Having a mixed ability group can really help, as you can play to everyone’s strengths.
For those in the later stages of dementia or who have seriously limited mobility, or those who are simply unsure about joining in, try sitting with them and doing the activity yourself while asking for advice and occasional help – for instance, asking for tips on whether you have enough of each ingredient while baking and for how long it should go in the oven; or asking what colour glitter or paint they would like on a card you are making and helping them to dap on some glue or paint if they are able. You could also try planning a themed session with different types of activity to suit each person. For instance, you could have a summer themed session and provide a variety of relevant activities, such as a summer-themed jigsaw, a picture to paint or colour in, a craft to do, or just some objects or pictures to look at, so that everyone is able to feel involved.
4. Remember the process is more important than the finished product
From my experience, two of the most important things to remember when doing activities with older people is to allow them to lead the pace of the activity, and to be flexible.
Try not to be too rigid with time constraints or goals for the session and allow it to unfold as it will – whether that means several of the group members leave or fall asleep before the end of the session, a craft activity evolves into a group singalong, or an activity is abandoned entirely in favour of a chat. Although it’s nice to have a finished product at the end of the session, what is even better is to have a happy participant who has enjoyed themselves, which is great to keep as the focus of any activity.
5. Plan a mini celebration
To increase the enjoyment and sense of achievement generated by an activity, it is a good idea to plan a form of celebration of what they have created – as small or as big as you like. This could be as simple as reading back a poem or story to the poet or storyteller, displaying a piece of artwork on the wall or in a care home newsletter or magazine, planning a meal based around something they have created, or presenting a certificate after a series of workshops.
Alternatively, you could plan something more extravagant every so often, such as organising a poetry reading or art exhibition, or compiling an anthology of stories. Remember also to thank each participant at the end of each session, to let them know their contribution has been appreciate