The Power of Using Puppets with People Living in Long Term Care Homes – Part 1

Storytelling with Puppets Workshop

Are you feeling discouraged by decreasing engagement and connection with your loved one or client living in a Long Term Care Home?  If you would like to move from a frustrating, deteriorating relationship, to having creative and playful interactions, I would love to share with you, the magic and power of puppetry.

At Puppeteria, what we do best is teach others (that’s you) how to make and use puppets as a tool for:

  • communication
  • problem-solving
  • conflict resolution
  • storytelling
  • educating
  • building relationships
  • advocating for social change
  • enhancing creativity, and
  • simply having fun and playing.

If you don’t have a puppet, don’t let that stop you.  You can click here for a download on how to make a super cute and creative sock puppet to get you started!

“Why puppets?”, you may be asking.  Here are just a few answers to that question.

  • puppets create an atmosphere of playfulness
  • puppets add a sense of “safety”
  • puppets are empathetic listeners
  • puppets are wonderful conversationalists
  • puppets are good problem-solvers
  • puppets can interact with people or with other puppets

I could keep this list going, but so as not to overwhelm you, let’s start here.

Puppets and Playfulness

Puppets can be whatever you want them to be.  They can be a fun “trickster type” who likes to tell silly jokes or riddles.  They may be grumpy (in a comical way), or a singing “ray of sunshine”.  If your puppet can start from the same kind of mood or temperment of your loved one/client, a connection will happen more quickly. From there, you can artfully shift the overall mood to more positive and playful types of exchanges.

Use the knowledge you have of your person’s interests (music, movies, gardening, etc.) in order to help create a connection to the puppet.  Perhaps the puppet is a master gardener, or dog trainer, a baseball fan, or cellist in an orchestra.  If the puppet speaks from its “own experience” about these areas of interest, many playful and fun interactions can occur.

Storytelling with Puppets

How Do Puppets Create a Sense of Safety? 

Puppets don’t have expectations and they can relate to others through a sense of empathy.  This is important since residents of long term care homes are constantly adjusting to  increasing loss of independence.  Whether it is their mobility or cognitive functions that are declining, it is scary, stressful, and isolating to be in that position.  Puppets are not a threat in any way.  Puppets won’t challenge your loved one or client by expecting more than they feel capable of.  Puppets can come from a place of empathy where they can relate to the current challenges and talk about them from a place of understanding and acceptance.  Once your loved one/client has made a connection to the puppet, this allows for opportunity to share stories, compare notes, and problem-solve.

Puppets as Empathetic Listeners

You don’t need a puppet on your hand to take on the role of an empathetic listener, but it can be helpful, both to you and to your loved one/client.  Think about a time when someone was giving you their full attention – just listening without offering solutions. Puppets are the most adorable listeners in the world.  They can subtly nod, tip their heads in quizzical ways, react with surprise, respectfully ask for clarification when needed, reframe what they are hearing to ensure understanding and ask sensitive questions to keep the conversation going.  Three way conversations work well too!  For example, the puppet may look at you and say something like, “Wow!  That is really interesting.  I want to know more.”  In response, you can express your interest as well but saying something like, “Me too.  Maybe Mom will tell us more. Do you have any questions for her?”.  Of course, Mom can hear what you’re both saying and is enjoying the interest and attention she is receiving.

Puppets as Good Conversationalists

Hand in hand with being an expert listener, is being a good conversationalist.  Puppets are rarely at a loss for words and may even be tempted to interrupt at times (after all they love telling their own stories) but when that happens, it is an opportunity for you to say to the puppet, “Just hold that thought, puppet’s name, I really want to hear what loved one or client’s name is saying.”  That simple interaction between yourself and the puppet will let your loved one/client know that you care and enjoy your time together.  It’s a wonderful way to strengthen connections.  The puppet’s interests can act as a springboard for conversation.  As we touched on when talking about the playfulness of using puppets, the puppet can open a conversation about a common interest that is shared and encourage participation of the humans.

This is a true story of a time I was working in the school system as an educational assistant.  Because I was on the supply list at the time, I worked with many children (but not consistently) from kindergarten to grade 12.  On this particular day, I was supporting a 5 year old girl with autism, named Katie. The classroom was noisy and I could see she felt overwhelmed by the combination of noise, activity and other sensory stimulation.  I asked Katie if she would like to sit with me in the dress up area where it was quieter.  Katie didn’t speak, but followed me over to the quiet area.  I spotted a raggedy old puppet amongst the dress up clothes and slipped it on my hand.  The conversation went like this:

Puppet:  Wow.  It sure is noisy in here.  I can’t even here myself think.

Katie looked at the puppet with interest and curiosity.

Puppet:  When anyone runs too close to me, I feel like I’m going to explode.  I need space and quiet.

Katie shook her head in agreement.

Puppet:  I’m glad you came over here.  It’s nice to be with someone who understands.

Katie:  My head hurts when it’s noisy.  I feel like I’m going to explode too.

The conversation continued from there but the really remarkable thing is that Katie spoke to the puppet.  She was labelled as non-verbal in the classroom.  It was the first time the classroom teacher heard her speak. After this first “Puppet to Katie conversation”, Katie’s EAs started to use the puppet as well to encourage her to speak and to understand her needs better.

I’ve had similar experiences while working with puppets in Long Term Care homes.  It’s not unusual for people to stop communicating verbally as dementia takes it’s hold.  Just as with Katie, puppets are a great way to encourage conversation with the sick and elderly as well.  A bit of “puppet empathy” can go a long way.

 

Puppets Are Good Educators for Problem-Solving

When there are decisions to be made and problems to be solved, puppets can be excellent vehicles for sharing important information with your loved one or client, that will lead to better informed solutions.  By keeping the puppet in a neutral point of view (not favouring one side more than the other), the puppet can be a part of the conversation as a neutral third party.  The puppet can ask questions, bring clarity, and offer another perspectives to the conversation.  Of course, if you are the one manipulating the puppet, you have control over the information that is being shared.  I certainly don’t want anyone to use puppets to manipulate information to achieve their personal agenda.  I’m just saying that puppets are good teachers and can help you share the information that is important to the decision or solution.

Storytelling with Shadow Puppets

Puppets Can Interact with People or Other Puppets

All of the above strategies involve puppets interacting with people.  You can apply the same strategies to puppets interacting with other puppets.  In fact – one of the most powerful ways to build connection between yourself and your loved one or client is to take the time to make puppets together.  The creative process opens up opportunities for all kinds of meaningful conversations about people, personalities, dreams and life.  We’ll explore “Sharing the Creative Process through Puppets” in part 2 of this post.  In the meantime, download our free instructions on how to make a quick and easy sock puppet to get you started.  This will also ensure that you receive notification of Part 2 of this post.

Until next time,

Shelley

…sharing the magic of puppetry