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.


Our gifts, our bliss – writing prompts

Today’s writing prompts, spot-on for all ages, are from David Richo’s Coming Home to Who You Are, a Baby Bear-sized (“just right”) book with super short chapters.

When I think about this book, it feels like one read many years ago, before Mom slipped from us – it hits so many home truths & hard-won lessons that the two of us came to together.  But it was published in 2011, my first read was early 2013!

Coming Home to Who You Are is a book Mom would have kept by her bedside, been a good companion when she’d wake up at 3:00 a.m.ish, when reading something that spoke to her heart helped tumble her back to sleep.

As Mom worked her way along her quest for a stronger, more cohesive sense of her 90+ year old self, the following are the sort of  questions she’d pause to ponder.  In her earlier years, she would have journaled them; by 1999 she avoided hand-writing due to a severely arthritic right shoulder & probably would have mulled these over in her mind, maybe shared her thoughts with her online circle of friends, or with me, kept them to herself.

The questions are from the brief chapter, Our Gifts and our Bliss.  As David Richo introduces the chapter, “It’s important to appreciate our innate talents.  It is never too late to begin using our gifts, an it is always too early to give up on them.”

The following questions are set out to help us reflect on or discover the gifts that lead to deeper happiness satisfaction contentment – bliss – whatever our age, stage or state of being:

What are my gifts & talents?  How does my current life include & advance them?

What has consistently brought me happiness & a sense of fulfillment?  How can that be present today & across my tomorrows?

What in my life arises from my choice?  What arises due to obligations OR from other’s choices?

What do I admire or envy in the lives of others?

What would I like to see happen for those I love?

What am I being encouraged to do or be by those I trust?

What am I afraid of risking if I “step out of line” or “act outside the box” of what I think others expect from & for me?

What are the loves & longings I am afraid to tell anyone about?  Why?

If I am not already there, what will it take for me to believe that it is my turn to make the choices that reflect who I am & what makes me happy?

These are a lot of questions, but they are natural companions, each welcoming the next & each offering a greater appreciation of what my “ancient” (her term) mother actively sought over those final few years – a clearer, more cohesive sense of our self, whatever our age.



The Play’s The Thing

Human beings need play the way they need vitamins.  ~ lionel tiger ~

Spend the day with a typical older person living in even one of the better “senior lifestyle residences” & notice if any semblance of spontaneous, unstructured PLAY is part of his or her experience.

Too often, not much, if any.

The greatest source of playful interaction & connection is typically mealtime, where – if she’s lucky (and the vast majority of residents are women) – she’s part of a regular circle of friends sharing lunch & laughs.  Alas, such “breakfast brigades” & “lunch bunches” are far from the norm & many of the ones that meet every day focus on aches pains problems rather than providing lively & expansive back & forth.  Even the best are haunted by the specter of alteration by debilitation & death.

Typically, the more high-end a senior residence, the more choices there are for playful interaction, from year ’round swimming to fair weather golfing, dancing & bridge & the performing arts (as participant or audience). But how many of residents actually take part in those activities?  And if they want to participate, who helps makes sure they get to & from them?  Personal care in even the best facilities can fall prey to being top quality maintenance rather than continual enrichment, however well-meaning & best-intentioned its goals.

Top of the scale, Ma!   Everyone on the face of the planet needs a steady diet of laughter-lobbing play, play that gets the energies flowing, the heart pitter pattering, that deepens old ties & forges new ones.

I think of a young family who swiped my heart this past spring when I helped with the youngest while their mother finished up her degree work at a local college.  Those children –  & parents & grandparents – breathe play into everything they do, bring a sense of adventure & the unknown into all aspects of their lives.

That family sits atop the high end of my playfulness scale.  Don’t look to me to describe the sorry folks of all ages who slide down the scale to the very end.  My True North purpose is to duplicate/modify best practices, then upgrade, even transform lives.  Think Galileo, Pasteur, the Wright brothers, Robert Goddard – each was considered a crackpot or kook & look at all they accomplished, the paths they opened that others have traveled.  Boys – move over & make room for me.

When I look at that wondrous play-filled family that scampered off with my heart, I see children & parents who know their boundaries, who have chores, who place expectations on each other.  They live work play within a creative structure.  How can we create a structure where older people could value & access more play?

Alas, when people think about play, they tend to limit it to children.  Back in February 2008, the NY Times Magazine’s ran a cover story on play – spinning off a presentation by Stuart Brown & Krista Tippett at the NY Public Library discussing its biological & spiritual roots.  But four months later, in a wildly popular TED talk, Stuart (I like to think of myself as friends awaiting an introduction) pointed out that the cover didn’t show a single adult at play, only children.  They’d missed the point of his work – that play is as needed in adulthood as it is when we are in our single digits, teens, twenties.  In my experience, it is as important as fresh air & good nutrition for a happy, healthy life.

Background – seventeen years ago, I expected that 2017 would find me easing out of my corporate career.  I had an exceptional run & quite a few professional accolades & honors, including 2000 Employee of the Year.  Then, in late summer/early autumn 2001, it became clear the Universe had WAY different plans for me.  But it wasn’t until I crossed paths with Anne Davis Hyatt that I got the first aha about my True North life purpose.

Kent, Anne’s best beloved, died after a stroke, in his late 80s.  She was suddenly solo.  And depressed.   Oh, and been recently diagnosed with dementia.

Anne’s family gathered together, discussed the situation, then checked out best next steps.  Their conclusion – infuse Mom with play activities, with a variety of play mates.  They brought me on for rambles & restaurant runs; Tamar to scoot Anne back to her beloved little hometown for visits with family & friends, pal up with her for weekly painting classes, play the piano & read aloud; and, always, Anne’s children were there for numerous regular weekly visits, after-church Sunday dinner & Sunday supper.

In the 7+ years Anne was our client, I don’t recall a single serious illness, nor a hospitalization.  The healthy dose of social interaction every day played out in a strong spirit housed in a declining body.  She was out & about doing things right up to the day she fell in her apartment.  This was a woman whose dementia had progressed to the point where she could not remember from moment to moment the day let alone the date, but no one – NO ONE – was more primed for the next great FUN moment.  Anne would frame the sunset with her hands, saying, “I don’t remember what they’re called (the sky, clouds, sun, trees & fields), but aren’t they BEAUTIFUL?!”  Imagine if she had been left, as the vast majority of seriously older people are, without an infusion of play into her day?

Play’s the thing!   For now, Anne – like my mother – would be considered an outlier.  Praise be, I have spent my life surrounded by older people whom others would consider similar fabuolous outliers!  My goal is to help turn that around so that the qualities that hallmarked their lives are considered the norm rather than a happy aberration.

Ten years ago, even 7+ years ago when I first started chumming around with Anne, that goal might have seemed unimaginable.  Today, it’s more & more can-do, with remarkable individuals groups organizations coalescing to turn around our current culture’s woeful attitudes around & expectations of aging upward.

It speaks volumes that next week’s International Association for Gerontology & Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress will, for the first time (!), feature as one of its official venues, The Age Stage.  It’s HUGE, that such an august body recognizes the importance & power of creativity, a cornerstone of play, in aging upward.

The Age Stage is a physical reminder that “the play is the thing.”

Four years ago, I discovered that the National Center for Creative Aging is rooted in the findings of Gene Cohen, a “book mentor” of mine for many years who died far too young in 2009.  So much has changed since the years where Medicare allocated a laughable (not in a good way) $250 a year for mental health. Gene fought to get that increased, fought for oldsters elders ancients to be considered deserving of good mental health, whether a kid of 65 or a 95+ grey head.  Just as most people accept the various ages of life, Gene believed that older age has its own stages – reevaluation, liberation, summation & encore.

I will be thinking of those stages – and reveling at my liberation – throughout the IAGG World Congress, blessed to be who I am with the background I’ve gathered (or been gathered for me), at this age, in this era, at this time, in this place.

Next week, the IAGG will give space & time to showcase the importance of aging creatively.  Give me a little time & watch me win them over to giving play its due!


YES! quote du jour


For all that has been – thanks.  For all that will be, YES!

I discovered Dag Hammarskjold as a fairly solitary 8th grader in a small school.  My 7th grade teacher fretted because of my love of MacBeth, which she considered WAY too depressing for someone so young – she didn’t get that the mayhem & murders (although the tears always started on reading MacDuff say, “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop?“) swept past me, that I lost myself in the play of words & interplay of personalities.

Everyone else was a character to me – MacDuff, whose humanity I sensed & whose pain I felt, was real.  It was natural that I’d be drawn to the great Swede, appreciating even back then, several years after his tragic death, the complexity of Hammarskjold’s character, the contradictions he made work for his humanitarian ends.

From what I’ve read & what I learned from my mother, also an admirer, Hammarskjold was a very private man pursuing a very public purpose.  He was proud of his Swedish heritage, yet acted as a citizen of the world rather than any one country, witnessed by his service as the second Secretary General of the United Nations.  His family were nobles since 1610, yet he was every inch a man of the people.  He had had the gift of connecting with others, yet let few people into his full confidence.  He was a master diplomat & statesman, yet his focus was always on the outcome, never manueverings & machinations.  He held out the hand of caring support, yet was careful to step when people needed to learn from their struggles.  He was a man of peace, but died violently, many suspected due to forces who did not want him interfering in Rhodesian (now Zambia.

As an 8th grader, I fell in love with his posthumously published book, Markings (Vägmärken).  I came across it again about ten years ago, in the library of a client who insisted that I take it.  Reading through it – selections from his dairy, starting in 1925, when he was twenty, ending a month before his death.   The source material was discovered in his New York apartment, along with a letter to one of his UN colleagues & a fellow Swede, saying they were the only “true” portrait of him, giving permission for them to be gathered into a book, “if you find them worth publishing”

When I share favorite quotes, which I hope to do regularly,  most will NOT come with a long backstory, but I doubt I would be doing the work I am, doing my best to make the lives of all ages as expansive as possible, without Dag Hammarskjold.  His life is an inspiration, his writing is in my soul.