Preaching to the playfulness choir

Steve Gross asks two questions that go as much to the heart of fostering a great life experience for oldsters elders ancients as they do for the children Steve works with – “Our mission at Playmakers is to … create enriching environments where people feel safe enough to play again.  That needs to be the mission of any organization that’s looking to foster & nurture the highest level of human potential.  ‘What do we do to get fear out of the environment & what do we do to enrich our environment so our people feel safe enough to engage, connect & explore?’ 

I heard that & everything in me said a hushed, “wow…”  Different words, but the same as our older2elder motto – engage energize empower.  Three steps that require a core sense of safety.  More, please.

Playfulness is a drive, a motivation to freely & joyfully engage with, connect with & explore the surrounding world.  What could be more important than that?

Playfulness is kinda like the Rodney Dangerfield of traits – it gets no respect.”  Steve talks about how superintendents miss the driving value of infusing playfulness into their schools, about children’s mental health care clinicians not making it #1 in their desired outcome goals – both see playfulness as inconsequential.

The same is true with far too many older people, their loved ones, their care partners, the administrators of even the best senior residences, most of whom brush playfulness off as a worthless frivolity.  And they confuse play activities with playfulness.

Trust me, no older person on the face of the earth feels the least bit playful sitting in a circle of other older people – including ones beset by dementia, others present but asleep in their wheelchairs – while an activities director leads them in a game of TV trivia.

That is killing time, not being playful.

What Steve is talking about, what John & I bring to our clients, whether an 8-year old decorating a cupcake or an 90-year old catching an in-room mini-film fest of Astaire-Rogers flicks, is the playful approach to what we do.

We’ve talked for years about how to define what we do, to convince Doubting Thomases about its worth, to empower others to do the same.  Duh!  It was so simple & right in front of us the whole time – show oldsters elders ancients, their loved ones, care partners, the staff & administrators at their senior residences how to bring a playful approach to their lives.

Exactly what we did with Mom & all our clients.  Not what we do;  HOW we do it.

Steve calls us to look at any activity we did as a child – playing tag or washing the dishes – and add a dash of playful approach to it.  “Any activity tagged with a playful approach produces PLAY.

Amen & hallelujah! With Mom & our wide range of older friends, John & I have always infused a playful approach into whatever we do, from driving to a dental appointment to scootling down to Philadelphia for jazz.

When we arrive at a friend’s, that zoom of playfulness is an immediate hit on the senses, because we bring out a sense of play in each other.  Being a dynamic duo is part of our special superpower – the sense of delight we have hanging out together, doubled by the joy we have doing things with our friends, whatever their ages.

Consider Anne, whose dementia was so advanced, she could not remember the day or date from one moment to the next, but was always up for the next moment of joy;  if she spotted us, she was immediately wreathed in smiles, knowing they’d come thick & fast.

When Steve talks about blurring the lines between work & play –  play our jobs & work our play – he’s speaking to two members of his choir.

Thirty years ago, John had his dream job, but there were aspects about it that wore down his spirits;  that client base crashed when computers came on the scene, but left him happier than before, loving his work as “painter of guy stuff,”  accepting commissions for pieces he loves to paint.  Without the dread of a phone call from an unhappy art director or trying desperately to meet a tight deadline, he’s free to feel a sense of play walking into his studio, which has gone from chaos to creative order.

As for me, been blessed most of my life with work that matters, companies that appreciated me & clients who gave me a spring in my step whenever I walked into a new work day.

But neither of us have experienced our present glee – – watching an older friend’s face light up when we come into sight, the deep satisfaction dropping someone off who’s lighter of step & in a happier frame of mind for having been on an out & about, the astonishing experience of three 80-something lifelong gal pals transforming into a trio of teens gabbing in the car as we take a back roads route to lunch at the shore.  THAT is a superpower!

Playfulness was why I went from years of mediocrity at Prudential Health Care to lauded & applauded, why I bagged Employee of the Year at BISYS.  Human Resources at both companies wanted me to develop a workshop on what I did so others could replicate it.  Never could.

Post-Steve, it would be a piece of cake – show them how to infuse playfulness into every aspect of their work, because that was what I did.  I just didn’t recognize the secret ingredient.

Our approach is much more important than the activities we are doing.”  That was why client after client called or wrote to rave about my work for them – it was their sense that turning around their situation gave me joy.  It wasn’t just a job to me – it was an opportunity, every day, to solve puzzles, switch frowns into smiles, transform a stressed voice to a calm.  That was fun & apparently it came across.

John & I do the same with our older friends.  When Mom’s very being was filled with fear after she’d broken her hip, we figured how to ease her back to feeling safe, little smile by little smile.

When Anne was feeling especially low, we’d find ways to open her up & get her laughing,  our goal always to drop her off at the end of the evening looking forward to the new day.

With Richard, it’s seeing his face go from dark & dull to upbeat & excited, knowing he’s about to head out on a ramble.

With each, the fun starts the moment they spot the good times in our eyes.

When I spot an older friend stuck in a circle of other elderly people, with a middle-aged activities director leading some game or quiz, it is clear he or she is feeling the opposite of playful.

Which has me thinking about the local continuous care retirement community where Anne lived for many years.  One of the things that I absolutely LOVE about Rydal Park is that their activities directors exude a sense of playful energies, even when we just walk past them in the hall.  Their eyes sparkle & there is laughter in their voice as they greet us.  They bring that light touch & sense of fun to planning their Personal Care & Dementia Unit activities, which are often guided by young people, students at a local college.  Every breath they take says, “I am glad to see you – let’s have a great time together.”  We applaud – and relate to – that!

That dynamic, that approach, that active infusing of a sense of playfulness into whatever we do – – that IS something John & I can share with other people, the secret sauce of our success that we’ll happily spread around.

It would be wonderful if every senior residence & care facility was like Rydal Park at its best.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  Too many – perhaps even most – elder care settings, from day cares to continuous care communities, apartments & family residences, even their own homes, are more infused with fear than with playfulness.  And that CAN change.

Oldsters elders ancients, their loved ones, care partners & staff can learn new ways to bring playfulness into every day.  Someone can live in a single room at a continuous care residence, with the teeniest of kitchens in her foyer (a reminder that she never actually cooks), considerably smaller than her bathroom which has to be able to accommodate herself, a wheelchair & an aide, her movements limited to when someone can help her get from the bed to a wheelchair ~ and yet ~  she can STILL, with the right support for herself & from every staff member who enters her room or crosses her path, have a sense of playfulness throughout her day.

It doesn’t take much more than awareness & a few basic techniques to raise the experience of someone coming into a resident’s room to empty a wastebasket from being sensed as an intrusion on a long-lost privacy to a connecting encounter that makes both parties feel better after the staff member has said “Take care!” on his way out.  It just takes knowing.

Helping elders & their support team add a dash of playfulness throughout their day, wherever they live, whatever their situation & circumstance – that’s gotta be about the best play in the guise of work EVER.

Tomorrow, will write my first fan letter to Steve Gross, thanking him for helping me connect with a Future Self who wonders what took me so long to get to Now, asking who out there is/are already applying his Playmaker principles to create environments that help everyone – of any age stage circumstance – engage connect explore their surroundings.  We want in.

Steve is a true Champion of Optimism.  He doesn’t just preach it –  he empowers others to go & do likewise.  He reveals a path we were born nurtured tapped to follow.


Author: auntdeev

playfulness coach, life enthusiast & general instigator, ENTJ, cat lover

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