Act your age — or don't: Theater as therapy in long-term care

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Staff Writer Tim Mullaney
Staff Writer Tim Mullaney

If you work in long-term care, it's easy to become cynical. Constant reimbursement cuts, onerous regulations, high staff turnover, the threat of billion-dollar lawsuits … this isn't about caring for seniors, it's a racket, you might say.

Of course, cynicism is a danger in many professions. I was an actor in New York City for four years. I've loved theater my whole life, and relished being in the thick of things, but after grinding rounds of fruitless auditions, dozens of metaphorical doors slammed in my face, and seeing talented friends struggle due to showbiz politics or the whims of fate, there were moments of bitterness. I might even have said that theater is a dirty business, meant to employ big stars and part rich tourists from increasingly obscene sums of money.

Now, I've happily traded in my pancake makeup for a reporter's notepad, and I love to attend shows and support my friends in the biz — yet, I still sometimes feel jaded about theater.

That's why I was so glad to talk with Ricardo Pena this week. Pena is running an impressive drama program at Canterbury Care & Rehab Center in Cedar Grove, NJ, where he is therapeutic activity director.

When I first heard about Pena's program, its scale surprised me. This is not a drama club that rehearses in the cafeteria and then puts on some skits in the lounge — nothing wrong with that, but I was excited to learn that Canterbury residents perform entire shows that demand a lot from performers, such as “West Side Story.” And they sometimes put up their productions in a 600-seat arts center at Bloomfield College, inviting 20 area nursing homes to attend.

Needless to say, Pena is a talented logistical coordinator. He adapts each rented or donated performance space by installing ramps, since about 90% of the performers are in wheelchairs.

“We modify everything for their capability and adhere to codes, make sure they're comfortable on and off stage,” he told me.

Pena and his performers also modify the material itself, as part of a long, six- to seven-month rehearsal process. Choreography is devised for performers who use wheelchairs, walkers and canes. The cast has group sessions to tweak the script. And the shows incorporate an element of improvisation, because some cast members have dementia.

Pena shared the story of Artie, an actor with dementia. He could not memorize lines, but if Pena told Artie what the scene was about right before he went on stage, Artie could ad-lib and keep the story flowing perfectly.

I was deeply impressed to hear this — and not only because of what Artie could do, but because of what this says about the other actors on stage, who listened to Artie and responded appropriately, staying in character and keeping the story on track. This is representative of Pena's approach. He takes his performers' capabilities into account, and sees how they can use their individual strengths to create an ensemble.

“I have a lot of strong residents that have good voices. I have those that don't, but they have charisma. I use that as well. It's a team effort,” he said.

His words reminded me of my high school drama teacher, who said that plays are about all sorts of people, so there's a place for every type of person in the theater. The Canterbury productions certainly bring together all different types of residents, as well as staff members at all levels who participate. Doing these shows unifies everyone in the facility, Pena says.

Hearing about the Canterbury program, it's hard to be jaded about theater. I was reminded that I love how it brings people together — casts come together in rehearsals and on stage, and live theater also brings together performers and audiences, forging a strong, immediate connection. When that connection is between a senior on stage and his or her family members in attendance, it's especially powerful. 

And hearing Pena's passion, it's hard to be cynical about long-term care. So I'll leave you with his advice to other facilities considering a theater program:

“Empower the residents. They can do it. No matter the age. People say there are boundaries, and there are not. Whatever your age, whatever state of mind you're in, you can do it. No matter what.”

Tim Mullaney is the staff writer at McKnight's. Follow him on Twitter at @TimMullaneyLTC.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.