Trust the Movement
Most of the people I work with are living in nursing homes: at the end of their lives, their life force gradually (and in some cases, more quickly) waning. Though these types of facilities are growing increasingly good at keeping people alive, the environment itself, even at the most beautiful facility, is often depressing. Our elders sit in wheelchairs crowded and stacked in rows, staring at TV screens for hours, as nurses administer medications, as technicians draw blood, as activities roll in and out endlessly--all to a soundtrack of medical noise.
We have gotten very good at keeping people alive, but: what, truly, is the quality of that living? How can we provide meaningful experiences that bring value and purpose to life in the nursing home environment - experiences that create lasting feelings of inspiration, connection and belonging? And not only that, but how can we help elders in these environments tap into the innately nourishing quality of their own life force, while they are still with us?
I'm not talking about prolonging life longer than necessary. I'm in favor of people going when they're ready. But through the arts, we can provide experiences that remind elders how it feels not just to exist, but to pulse with life, connection and joy. I believe that these experiences, though fleeting, offer a kind of essential nourishment that has lasting effects.
And I'm not talking about people on hospice, people truly at the end and ready to die. I'm talking about people 'waiting at the gate,' the ones who may spend years of their lives in a nursing home: the ones we conveniently tuck away in this culture so we don't have to think about it.
Studies show that when a person with dementia is engaged in meaningful activity that fosters joy and connection, the effects on mood and affect may last for hours after the event, even if the person can't cognitively remember what happened. I would guess that this is true for all of us, though we may not be aware of it. Experiences of togetherness transform and uplift people and spaces long after the activity itself.
So my goal in working with people at this stage of life and in these settings has become pretty simple: to create the conditions for an experience (however fleeting) of vitality.
Because vitality = love = presence, however subtle.
My goal has become to create the conditions for even a small flicker of wonder, excitement, surprise or joy. Because if even one of my residents experiences one of those things, for even one second, I have done my job. As Andrew Solomon so beautifully writes: "The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality." These small shifts are everything.
This doesn't mean we favor aliveness and deny all the rest. It's important to acknowledge death and dying, impermanence, loss, depression and allow for the grief. We can't feel good or pulse with aliveness all the time. We have ups and downs, ebbs and flows, and cycle like all things in nature. We're human. It's a full circle dance.
But there is so much depression in the nursing home, it often fills the air like a heavy fog. So we need some relief. Some lightness. What helps me in doing this work is to focus on how I can generate a little spark for someone, however small. Because that small spark is often contagious, and residents in the room who are at first resistant are often tapping their feet and smiling by the end of the session.
I used to work really hard trying to engage the group, trying to be clever, trying to deliver or discover a group theme, in order to make meaning and tie it up neatly with a bow. The reality of this work, though, is teaching me to let go of any outcome and trust the movement more and more: to surrender to the life force in the room and in our bodies, and allow it to guide us.
And I am learning to trust not only the rhythm of the music but of our heartbeats. To trust that when we drop in together and move in synchrony, we do what humans have been doing forever in community. We tap into something greater than ourselves. And that is inherently healing. That is medicine, too.
Even if we can't remember our name, or what we had for lunch, there is a part of us that remembers how to do this. A part of us that knows the value of dance, music and community. When all else falls away, we still speak the language of love. Through movement, we can more fully enter this dance of life. And even as it begins to slip away, perhaps we can still taste and savor the gift of our aliveness, even if only for a moment, and remember how sweet it can be to be here, now.