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Puppetry and Dementia Care

senior woman with puppet

Puppets and dementia? What do puppets and dementia have to do with one another you may ask? Well, actually a lot.

Puppetry has been around for centuries. It is the art of using inanimate puppets that often resemble a human or animal figure to depict a story or situation. In more recent history, it has evolved as a valuable resource in communicating with those who have dementia.

Puppetry is a playful and creative tool that can help people with dementia. They can help them look at things differently and encourage social interaction. They can help express emotions that may be dormant. They can even trigger memories and help break down communication barriers that come with dementia.

One Story About Puppetry and Dementia Communication

There are many examples of how puppetry can have a positive impact in coping with dementia. One daughter had great success with puppet plays.

Her father was experiencing many symptoms of dementia. He was listless, unresponsive and depressed. He was also confined to a wheelchair. But he loved dogs and he had loved to dance. The daughter bought an adorable, furry stuffed animal puppet dog (available at almost any toy store). She also pulled out an old stuffed toy dog she’d had as a child.

Under her direction and guidance, the dogs danced for her father. She choreographed an entire production with some of her father’s favorite music playing in the background. Not only was he delighted and engaged; he wanted to take charge of one of the dogs and make it dance. Talking to the puppet dog, he spoke about dancing with his wife and remembered playing with his favorite dog, Sasha.

That daughter was me. After that, whenever I saw my Dad, he wanted to talk to and play with the dogs and make them dance. During each puppet session, he opened up, and was more relaxed, even joyful.

man making wooden puppets

10 Benefits of Puppets for Those with Dementia

Try using puppets to have more good days with dementia and see which of these many benefits present themselves:

  1. Boost self-esteem. Those dealing with dementia often lose self-confidence and grow insecure. In fact, they are not as capable or quick-witted as they once were. Interacting with puppets can help them feel they have some control again. They are able to communicate in a new way. It may seem like a silly game, but in fact, it can help many regain a sense of self-esteem.
  2. Stimulate memories. Like many sensory triggers (a song or a photograph), the creative power of puppets can rekindle foggy memories. Puppets can reflect a person’s experience or past memories. A woman who can’t remember she was once an opera singer may start singing through the puppet.
  3. Enhance communication. Communication can be difficult for those with dementia. This inability to communicate increases their isolation and reclusiveness. Puppetry is a way to break through that wall and draw a person out. It encourages communication on other levels that aren’t verbal.
  4. Strengthen bonds. It’s easy to lose connection with someone in the grip of dementia. By improving communication in late-stage dementia, puppets can help strengthen bonds with loved ones and caregivers. Recognition and remembering can draw parents and children closer. Better understanding opens the door for a more loving exchange.
  5. Stimulate & convey emotion. Puppetry can stir emotions, including laughter and the healing power of humor. A person with dementia can also use a puppet to convey emotions that they may not be able to communicate with words.
  6. Live in the present. Puppetry demands a dementia patient’s immediate attention. Puppetry encourages them to be in the present and not worry or regret what they can’t remember or can’t do.
  7. Express personal preferences. Puppets can be an indirect and “safe” way for an individual with dementia to communicate concerns, personal preferences and sensitivities. They can help an individual convey distress or frustration. These are feelings they may not have been comfortable expressing in other ways.
  8. Encourage social interaction. Puppetry can help those who are withdrawn to re-engage. It can draw them out of their solitude in a safe way, boosting their confidence and desire for social interaction.
  9. Boost attitude & mood. Communication via puppetry can enhance the mood of those with dementia. It can make for more joy and self-expression, more social interaction and more emotional release. Puppets can provide positive feedback that people may not be getting (or understanding) from the outside world.
  10. Give life purpose. Puppets can help bring a sense of purpose to a person with dementia. They stimulate creativity, social engagement and emotional connection. This can make a person feel important, boost their mood and enhance their quality of life.

The Value of Role Playing with Puppets

Another example of how puppetry helped with dementia involved a very proud, elderly woman. She had been a leader in her community but was suffering from dementia and was quite compromised. Let’s call her Ann. She was introduced to a beautiful, glamorous, older women puppet.

The happy puppet was talking to Ann and describing Ann’s own remarkable life. The tale made Ann smile, but it also caused her to take the puppet and to make it limp and stumble and be sad.

Through puppetry, Ann was relating her own loss and sadness in a way she could no longer express in words. The puppet enabled her to express her emotions and seemed to help her process and cope with them. It also brought her joy when the puppet rebounded and was singing and dancing and happy again. When words fail or are simply lost, visual images and play-acting can help fill the void.

Final Thoughts on Puppetry and Dementia

The book, Puppetry in Dementia Care: Connecting through Creativity & Joy by Karrie Marshall, a nurse-counselor who has also operated a caregiving facility, demonstrates the many ways that storytelling with puppetry can help those with dementia express emotions. It can stimulate their imagination and activate brain connections that may have become dulled and fuzzy.

Marshall’s book also includes step-by-step instructions for making puppets. This can be fun, especially for the Martha Stewart creative types. But in our busy daily lives, it may be easier to buy them or work with stuffed animals and dolls. There are also small finger puppets today that are even easier to utilize. The idea is to incorporate creative art therapy into interactions with those who have dementia.

Puppetry is another valuable resource for dementia caregivers to add to their toolbox. It can be fun and playful, and very rewarding. Most importantly, it can often make a big difference in enhancing your parent, friend, or spouse’s quality of life.

Resources

Puppetry in Dementia Care
Gary Friedman Productions

About The Author

An accomplished freelance writer and editor, Cheryl is passionate on how to bolster our resilience in old age and reshape the course of decline. Her compassion and understanding for caregiving stems from acting as a caregiver for her mother, who struggled with dementia, and her father, who suffered from Parkinson’s.