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Sparking Your Sense of Playfulness

Sparking Your Sense of Playfulness


Posted on August 20, 2014 by Tamberly Mott


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I’d like to tickle your curiosity about playfulness, but first I’d like to share a true story about a caregiver.  [The names and identifying references have been changed to protect confidentiality.]

One day I received a phone call from a woman inquiring about therapy services.

She disclosed that an incident at home made her realize she had too much anxiety, and the stress was beginning to take a toll on her relationships.  Among other things, she worried that her daughter resented her for having moved her mother into their home, into her daughter’s room, effectively displacing her daughter to sleep on the futon in the den.  Her voice was cool and matter-of-fact, but there was a kind of desperation in her words when she said, “You are the only therapist who has weekend appointments; I work on weekdays, and when I get home I have to get everyone dinner and help my mother (Gail) get ready for bed. Besides, I have no one to stay with my mother, and my eyes don’t do as well driving at night anymore.”

After learning that I would not work with her as an individual unless I was able to meet with her whole household, (I worked from a “Family Systems” model), she agreed to bring her family in for the free consultation.

The father did not attend the session, as his business had him traveling out early that week.  His work generally kept him away from home four-to-five days each week, leaving his wife to tend to the needs of the family and the home.  The daughter arrived first, shamelessly enlightening me. “Dad couldn’t come,” she said. “Mom has to help Gramma out of the car -- she’s slow, and I wanted to ask if you could tell my mom not to give away my cat?” I could see the girl was high-spirited and decidedly independent. Before I could respond, she noted some toys on a shelf and asked, “What are the toys for -- can we play?”

Just then, we heard (Jane) her mother’s voice saying, “This way Mother, this way.” I turned to greet the women, introduced myself, and extended a welcoming gesture. I saw a pale woman with tired eyes holding her arm around another woman whose face mirrored her own.  She wore a polite smile that turned to a frown when she saw her daughter casually milling about the office.

“Sit down and don’t touch anything,” Jane said.  “Annie, what have I told you about touching what does not belong to you?”  Obediently, the girl stepped back from the shelves with toys and sought my eyes.  Cordially, hands were shaken, names exchanged, and everyone found their way to a seat on the sectional couch.  Although the eldest woman needed a little assistance to sit, she seemed to have fairly good mobility, looked younger than her years, and appeared to be relaxed and in a good mood.

I could feel Jane’s tension as she made the introductions, apologizing that her husband could not join us, and explaining that her mother was a little confused today.  I offered a warm knowing glance.

To break the ice, and to observe the family dynamic, I retrieved a few board games, suggesting we get acquainted by playing a game together.  This proposal made Jane stiffen, but the others seemed to perk up at the idea.

The daughter (Annie) instinctively left the sectional couch to position herself on the floor for better access to the games.  Eyeing the options, she kept her wriggling hands to her sides.  Jane reacted to her movement by saying, “You need to sit still, and wait for Tamberly.”

I also left my seat to kneel on the floor, suggesting, “Annie, go ahead and choose the game you like.”  She hesitated over Jenga (a stacking block game), but picked The Game of Life.

Again, Jane reacted, “That’s too long of a game and too complicated for Grandma.”  Then, giving me a stern look, she added, “Is this really necessary?”

I explained we did not have to play the entire game, and we did not need to worry about the rules if we were not playing competitively. I suggested we try it and see how it goes.

Jane gave her daughter a long look, then, with a brief glance toward her mother, said, “You can play for a few minutes, but we came to talk to Tamberly.” Her words and mannerisms suggested her increasing discomfort with the activity.  I thought to myself, “She wants rules and order, but she likely needs some play time.”

Once Annie received my approving nod, she went to work setting up the game the way she liked, including organizing the colorful money and game pieces.  It was touching to see how she gently took her grandmother’s hand, moved it to the spinner, and said, “You can go first, Gramma. Spin the wheel like this.

A smile broke out on Gail’s face and youthfulness seemed to return to her eyes. She must have enjoyed the success of the spin, because she repeated the motion a couple of times, her smile becoming broader as she watched her granddaughter’s appreciative face.

Jane’s impatience was growing, and with an audible clearing of her throat, she declared, “I’d like you to ask Annie how she feels about Grandma living with us.”  “Annie, don’t put all the pink people in the car, it’s supposed to represent a family with blue for the boys and pink for the girls -- and you have to wait and play the game before you add the children; those are the rules.”

Annie was unmoved by her mother’s words, and she continued with the all-pink and all-blue-filled cars, passing them to Gail for her to hold, and then carefully taking them back and setting them in random locations on the board.  Grandmother and granddaughter were connected in their delight.

Jane could not contain her exasperation. “Do you see how she refuses to listen to me?”

Before I could respond, Annie chimed in, “I’m listening Mom; I like Gramma living with us, and we’re not playing by the rules -- Tamberly said so.”

Jane sat back and sighed, seemingly giving in to the idea that the game was not going to be played by the rules.  She shot me her polite smile, and then seeing the grin on her mother’s face, her eyes began to tear up. After a pause, she said, “I’m sorry, I’m so tired.  I have to stay geared up to meet everyone’s needs at work and at home.  I hope you understand, I may not feel like playing, but I will try for Annie and Mom’s sake.”

Although I had just met Jane and her family, I could not help but suspect “caregiver fatigue.”

Caregiver fatigue can significantly interfere with happiness and overall quality of life. In a constant state of concern about her mother living with dementia, Jane felt guilty when she lost her patience with her mother.  Jane also believed she was ineffective as a daughter and mother, and constantly worried that she was not providing her daughter with the structure she needed.

I explained that her situation was not uncommon.  In today’s economy, many adult children find themselves caring for parents and children, while still working outside the home.  Without a break from this kind of demanding schedule, physical and emotional exhaustion are inevitable.

Do you relate to Jane’s story?  Where do you fall on the “caregiver fatigue” continuum?

When caregivers experience extreme fatigue, they tend to experience a shift toward the negative, taking on a “serious” perspective or attitude.  They begin viewing others in more cynical and derogatory terms.  They may also begin to develop a low opinion of their capabilities and their worth and/or feel hopeless.  Jane admitted her drive, enthusiasm, passion, and her energy had become buried under all the emotional weight she’d been carrying around since her mother moved in.  But what could be done to alleviate the strain she was experiencing as a caregiver, daughter, mother, wife and wage earner?

In that first session, Jane experienced a shift from being the responsible adult managing every detail of life, to being a lighthearted playmate not caring about rules.  It was only 30 minutes out of her life, but in those few minutes she experienced some much needed respite.  In addition to offering empathy and suggesting that Jane consider Assisted Living options for additional support, my prescription of 30 minutes of spontaneous play certainly brought some much needed levity to the situation.

Just a few minutes of play time every day helps to generate a more positive attitude, and provide much-needed relief, for caregivers facing caregiver fatigue and burnout.

Why play?  For adults, play has many health benefits: reducing stress, promoting relaxation, and giving perspective to the demands of life.  By adulthood, many people lose their ability to playfully explore themselves. Building and maintaining relationships via play is associated with improved mental health and less disease. Playful exploration can enhance both cognitive and physical behaviors, and a vast amount of research, from neurophysiology to molecular biology, provided data that supports the idea that a sense of playfulness benefits people of all ages.

During play, we often feel positive changes in mood and higher engagement, assuming play is focused on the interaction rather than the activity or completion of the activity. In this way, it is mutually beneficial for all involved, regardless of one’s stage of development or related abilities.

Play can produce many benefits:

  • Cognitive Benefits -- optimizes learning, enhances flexibility in thinking (imagination, creativity), makes new connections in meaning (critical thinking), recognizes surprises, alters ideas and habits and challenges expectations
  • Social Benefits -- connects people, enhances relationships, expresses ideas, shares perspectives based on positive experiences, learns to adapt and change, makes new friends, and uses laughter to increase other healthy coping mechanisms
  • Physical Benefits -- exercises small and large muscles, oxygenates and stimulates blood flow to the brain and circulation to aid muscle relaxation, releases endorphins in the brain which can also reduce body pain
  • Emotional Benefits -- interacts with others and expresses feelings (combats depression), reviews life (integrity vs. despair), imagines new roles for self (growth), expresses empathy, builds self-esteem and self-efficacy

Finding a playmate makes play easier, but sometimes we don’t have others to “play” with.  If this is the case, don’t lose heart ... developing a sense of playfulness may be easier than you think.

  1. Tickle your funny bone.  If there are no friends around to be silly with, keep funny movies, humorous books, comic strips, or amusing photos around.  Look for ways to laugh about your own situations.  It may be forced at first, but practice laughing -- it does your body good.
  2. Join a Laughter Yoga class, a dance class, an art class, or a music class -- plan for fun and don’t put it off another day!
  3. Daily journaling. Experiment with time and place.  Have fun with your journal -- add drawings, color, doodling, poetry, silly stories -- just keep it light and relaxing.
  4. Go outside.  Imagination is a rich playground; spend some time outdoors imagining (I like to watch the clouds).  Keep it pointless -- play has no agenda.
  5. Go on a retreat. You get to decide where you go and for how long.
  6. Follow the lead of your children/grandchildren –or borrow some kids from the neighborhood. Children know how to play and are great play mentors for adults.
  7. Look for synchronicities. If we are ready, we notice “meaningful coincidences,” serendipity and sign posts that bring meaning and playfulness to what otherwise would be unremarkable moments in our lives.

Learn to play again, and make time to play. It will change your life.


Category: Caregiver Support

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