What Makes an Activity Engaging?

by Kareen King on April 30, 2015

If you’re curious about what makes or doesn’t make an experience engaging, read the following true story:

Many years ago in a land far away, I visited an Alzheimer’s/Dementia Assisted Living community designed to “give life” to all residents. I sat in on one of many activities of the day and observed “Mary,” a Life Engagement Coordinator interact with a group of about ten residents seated in couches. Mary distributed black and white photo copies of two figurines, a man and a woman, who were dancing at a fiesta. The copy was a bit blurry, but the essence was there.

Mary, who stood over, rather than sat with the residents, then went through a series of questions designed to elicit responses from the participants. Very few responded, nor looked engaged. The scenario resembled that of a traditional classroom in which an instructor quizzed rather than connected with the students. A female resident stood from her seat, walked over to me and handed me her photocopy.

“Oh flitter flutter,” she said as she handed me the paper, “I don’t have any use for this.”

She proceeded to return to her seat while another resident attempted to supply her with a new picture.

“Oh, they’re all the same,” she responded, then sat down.

Beside her was “Martha,” the group cynic, who appeared to be very disinterested in the whole experience.

“I can’t tell one thing from another,” she remarked.

“Use your imagination,” Mary coached.

“O.k., use your imagination,” Martha quipped.

Mary’s remaining attempts to engage the residents fell on deaf ears as they poked fun at the pictures.

“Doesn’t even look like she has a bra on,” one lady commented. “Just floppin.”

“Can’t tell he has a top on,” another added.

“Doesn’t make any difference,” another said.

“Waste of time,” retorted Martha.

Clearly frustrated, Mary responded, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” She paused, then asked, “How can I make it more interesting?”

Nobody responded. By then the exercise had dissolved and Mary collected the papers. Not sure what to do, nor how to bring closure to the experience, she concluded with a quick, “I love you,” and whisked away.

Have you ever felt like Mary? Just not sure how to truly engage the older adults you serve? Let me offer a few thoughts.

First of all, are YOU engaged with the activity you’re doing? If not they’re unlikely to be either.

Secondly, are you following a “script” or are you generating curiosity, discovery, and creativity?

Do the activities you lead have lots of room for serendipity? That is, room for them to discover and express themselves as they wish? Serendipity is defined as “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.”

Furthermore, how many “happy accidents” are you experiencing on any given day? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you are missing out on some of life’s richest moments. The following is an example of how creative engagement played out during The Glen Campbell Experience last week with a group of participants in a skilled nursing community.

We discussed the story behind one of Campbell’s most famous songs, Wichita Lineman, a song inspired from the writer’s observation of a solitary lineman atop a telephone pole. I then took my iPhone and pretended to “call” each resident and say, “I’m so lonely. What should I do?” Their answers included:

  • “Get a drink.”
  • “Find some help.”
  • “Try to make some friends.”
  • “Say a nice prayer.”
  • “Have a party.”
  • “Go to sleep and have a dream.”
  • “Be happy and smile before you know, everyone will be doin’ it.”
  • One sang, “When you are so lonely and you don’t know what to do, give a little whistle” (to which we all whistled).
  • “Call someone else to join you.”
  • “Sing.”
  • “Get a convertible and go for a ride.”
  • “Sit right down and write yourself a letter and make yourself believe it came from you.”
  • “Go dancing.””
  • One slowly stood to her feet and then called out with all her might, “PARTY!”

A newcomer said afterward, “I’ve never laughed so hard in all my life.”  And guess what? We also learned a little bit about how to deal with loneliness.

In the meantime, if you need a jumpstart on how to generate those kinds of moments, I can’t recommend heartily enough my book, “Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults.”

I also offer creative engagement trainings for staff as well as creative engagement Experiences for older adult communities.

“Human touch is very important. That’s what you give to us.” – John, a 95-year-old Assisted Living Resident

Creative Engagement Exercises - Collage by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience® Creative Engagement Exercises – Collage by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience®

The above collage represents some of the exercises done during a six-hour creative engagement training I presented for the Presbyterian Manors of Mid-America Activities Network Group in Wichita, KS.


What Causes Pains and Aches to Disappear?

by Kareen King on March 28, 2015

It’s been awhile since my last blog post because I took a month off for some personal time.  I found that allowing extra space to step away from my “normal” routine was very useful. It gave me pause to reconsider “normal.” What I needed to see was that my brain needs more breathing room to “be” rather than brainstorm. I also enjoyed quality time with my daughter Joanna who visited from Germany and was able to focus on preparations for a local art show in which my photography was showcased.

Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience

In the meantime, I’d like to share with you some nuggets from the 2015 Purposeful  Living Conference I attended in Newton, Kansas a few weeks ago. It was hosted by LeadingAge Kansas and featured several speakers who specialize in Culture Change and person-directed care. I was particularly intrigued with Ellie Nocun’s session which reaffirmed my belief that the arts “can increase engagement, provide purpose, and enrich the lives of people you care for.”

Ellie, a visual artist and founder of ENSO Arts, provided further ammunition for my work as a Creative Engagement Specialist, informing us of the following: 1) No matter our cognitive ability, we can appreciate art, 2) Art makes you feel, and 3) Complex thinking can occur in dementia. She took us through some visual art exercises including an investigation into Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa portrait, inviting us to share what we saw. The question, “When you look at this picture, what do you see?” invites investigation which requires complex thinking.  More investigation occurs by adding, “Tell me more.” If the person with dementia can no longer verbalize, you can share with that person what YOU see and why. In short, we need to provide more opportunities for this kind of thinking in the world of dementia programming and creative engagement for older adults.

Though my work doesn’t focus on visual art, complex thinking occurs in other arts-related activities including group improvisational storytelling, group poetry, improvisational song parodies, and imagination exercises.  One of the most powerful testimonials occurred during a creative engagement gathering at an Assisted Living a couple weeks ago. It came from an octogenarian male who lives with some memory challenges. He stated, “I wish that I had come to this ‘hospital’ sooner because every Thursday this makes the week. And I mean that. When we listen to her, do we think of pains and aches? Do we think of problems? No we don’t. The next word out of her mouth changes it all.”

So, let’s do some complex thinking on the following question: “What ‘words’ cause aches and pains to fade and joy and happiness to increase?” Here are some thoughts:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Tell me more.
  • Tell me how you’re feeling.
  • What makes you say that? (Credit for this question goes to Ellie Nocun)
  • Tell me more.
  • Imagine with me the following . . .
  • I’m so glad to see you.
  • There’s brilliance in this space when we’re together.
  • You make/made my day.
  • I look forward to seeing you.
  • I’ll be back soon.
  • I missed you when you were/I was gone.
  • What you just said/did was amazing.
  • I love you.

Besides plunging back into creative engagement gatherings, doors are also opening up for creative engagement training. I’m scheduled to present an all-day workshop on April 22 in Wichita at the annual training meeting for Activity Directors who work for Presbyterian Manors of MidAmerica. I’m also scheduled to do a couple creative engagement sessions at the MidAmerica Institute on Aging in Evansville, IN in August, and to present an all-day workshop for the Kansas City Play Therapy Institute on September 25.

I still offer keynote concerts in addition to creative engagement trainings. I am also available to demonstrate how to lead a creative engagement gathering at an actual care community. A recent testimonial comes from Sally Bailey, Associate Professor, Kansas State University, Drama Therapy Program Director:

“Kareen King is the real deal — a committed, creative, and compassionate drama therapist who knows how to connect to older adults and lead an enjoyable, life-affirming group.  Her lessons are guaranteed to appeal to the curiosity in everyone and can be adapted to clients with any level of cognition or physical ability.  They have been honed through use with mixed ability groups of older adults, so they really work!  All you need is enthusiasm and the belief that there is creativity in everyone.”

Finally, if your brain is running on empty or is simply too busy to “storm” up new ideas, I highly (and humbly) recommend my book, “Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults” available by clicking: http://seniortheatre.com/product/engage-28-creative-enrichment-experiences-older-adults/


The Benefit of Nonsense in Creative Engagement for Older Adults

January 31, 2015

Want to know how to both provide meaningful and engaging activities for your residents while gathering information on what interests them? You are likely to provide more person-centered care when you create an environment that invites self expression. This is what I’ve discovered over the past few years during my work as a Creative Engagement […]

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A Great Resource on Creative Engagement for Older Adults! (“Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults” by Kareen King)

December 5, 2014

  This just in! I am pleased to announce my new book, an intense labor of love, “Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults,” available online at ArtAge Publications by clicking http://www.seniortheatre.com/product/engage-28-creative-enrichment-experiences-older-adults/ What it is:  A simple, step-by-step workbook to help you lead stimulating, creative programs How it works:  Uses thematic lesson plans with storytelling, […]

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When You Need Some Encouragement to Keep On Going

November 30, 2014

Some people think that a nursing home is a place where people are dumped by those who don’t care, to be left to stagnate on a “nowhere train” until they die. Perhaps that’s true in rare cases. But not in the retirement communities I serve. I see people who want to live, love, and learn, […]

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How Flat Stanley Helped Fulfill an Elder’s Dream

October 31, 2014

The above photo tells the story of how some dreams must be achieved posthumously. It shows my daughter Joanna holding the photo of a couple in front of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, Germany.  Awhile ago I had a conversation with a 95-year-old gentleman who, because of his wife’s untimely death, was never able to […]

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What Makes People Tick?

September 30, 2014

  “What makes people tick?” This question was posed by a 96-year-old Assisted Living resident awhile back. It was in response to me asking a gathering of residents what topic they’d like addressed for one of our creative enrichment Experiences during Assisted Living Week. After a long pause, Helen broke the silence with her usual […]

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Helping People Carry Sunshine, Rather Than Weight, On Their Shoulders

August 30, 2014

We all age differently, don’t we? The above photo, taken near my home this morning, reveals this truth. Some have carried a lifetime of the weight of the world on their shoulders, while others skip through life with sunshine on their shoulders. My role, in the world of older adults, is to help them discover […]

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What Makes a Facebook Post Go Viral?

August 11, 2014

  To go viral means communication is quickly and widely spread or popularized electronically, especially by person-to-person forwarding. What makes a thing go viral? It’s a mystery. I know one thing is certain, when your intent is to make a thing go viral, it’s unlikely to happen.  What I didn’t expect was that the following […]

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July 4, 2014

  It was the night of the annual 4th of July celebration. Rows of spectators sat waiting with anticipation on the hilltop as karaoke music wafted through the air. It was a perfect evening; no wind or humidity, clear sky, 70 degrees. Then I realized she was not out with the rest of us. I […]

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