Puppets help seniors discover inner world

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“With seniors, it’s about recording their stories, their knowledge and their wisdom, and being able to pass it on."

A program that helps people create mask-body puppets helps seniors uncover their inner world while learning about mental health.

View from the Inside: Courage Journey is a workshop offered by WP Puppet Theatre to various groups around Calgary to help promote mental health and wellness. Those groups have included seniors-focused ones such as The Alzheimer’s Society – Club 36 and the Carya-Active Chinese Seniors Cultural Group.

“With seniors, it’s about recording their stories, their knowledge and their wisdom, and being able to pass it on,”  says art therapist Allan Rosales. “At the same time we talk about mental health and mental wellness during the program.”

WP’s artistic and founding director Wendy Passmore-Godfrey says the class has participants create a beautiful piece of art alongside the conversations about mental wellness.

“Coming out of it is the promotion of mental health,” she says. “It’s not a lecture … it’s like living it, which I think is so much stronger.”

Over several sessions, participants create the mask-body puppet. The painted outside of the mask is how the individual feels the world sees them. The inside is a collage with representations of more personal, private thoughts. Attached to the mask are items that connect the creator to the community, their past or their future.

“Everybody’s got a creator inside them, even if you’re not a trained artist,” Passmore-Godfrey says. She says the act of choosing what to include on the mask can be therapeutic as well.

The participants then give a monologue or an artist’s statement about their mask and the choices they made. Some may even choose to use the puppet to speak through. Many are nervous about performing, she says, but they all overcome their fears.

“They’re so proud of themselves after,” she says.

During the sessions, conversations about mental health and wellness topics are sparked, helping disseminate information and suggesting resources, but also trying to create empathy for those with challenges.

“It’s a little bit easier to kind of talk about some of the things that are really hard when you’re busy making art and you’re focused on those things and it just happens kind of naturally,” says Rosales.

Finally, the masks are photographed and exhibited for friends, family and staff members, and participants keep the masks.

“I’m always thrilled and amazed,” says Passmore-Godfrey of the final results.

Rosales says the program can have a great impact on the participants, but also the people in those participants’ lives. For example, he says for Alzheimer’s patients – who can sometimes be defined by their diagnosis – it can remind people “there’s still stories, there’s still relationships” that are part of the patient.

“The response overall has been really great,” Rosales says.

“With seniors it’s never too late to try something new,” Rosales says. “I think it’s a really lovely program to have.”

The project and Passmore-Godfrey were recognized with the 2018 ATB Financial’s Healing Through the Arts Award at the Mayor’s Lunch for Arts Champions in April. This year the program’s been supported by sponsors like The Calgary Foundation, Education Matters and Calgary Arts Development.

Passmore-Godfrey says if there are groups out there interested in having the class, she’s always happy to collaborate to try and find some grant funding so it can happen.

“We can really tailor the program to the people who are taking it,” she says, noting a range of groups and organizations have participated.

For more information on View from the Inside or WP Puppet Theatre, check out https://wppuppet.com/

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Victoria Paterson is a Calgary-based freelance writer.