Play Well, Age Well

By Jocelyn A. Brown, PhD ~

I’ve pondered the saying, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” which is most often credited to George Bernard Shaw. Variations have been attributed to American psychologist and educator, G. Stanley Hall and English philosopher, Herbert Spencer. At face value, I understood the saying to mean that more playing, more activities were the cure for growing old and that doing fun things in life would ultimately extend our lives. The wisdom in the quote is two-fold.

     The act of playing is certainly helping my 89-year-old mother get through the stages of dementia. Music and dance have been key connections for her. When I became her full-time caregiver five years ago, mom was in the third stage of dementia, but still had a lot of enthusiasm for life. I realized that keeping her engaged was the way to keep her alive. Long hours without activity caused her mind to disengage and disconnect from interactions and life. She would languish and become pleasantly absent. Her language skills diminished to become brief, confusing phrases and stutters. Plants, pictures, and inanimate objects became companions to greet. Bringing mom back to “life,” so to speak, seemed miraculously easy once we established a daily routine of music, movement, and dance. When I play music, especially My Girl, by The Temptations, anything by Elvis, Belafonte, or Sinatra, mom’s energy soars. We sing, dance, hug, and kiss. The activity affects mom’s mood positively for hours. She becomes more interactive and more verbal. Short, incoherent phrases become full sentences. The joy of the activity makes her want to live. Until several months ago when mom fell and fractured her hip, formal singing and dance were a regular part of our lives. We joined a weekly singing group sponsored by the Parkinson Association of the Rockies four years ago. The euphoria of singing at the top of her lungs with a group of peers, waving her arms around like a conductor, and yelling “BRAVO!” after each song, lifted her spirits and energy for the rest of the day. Dance makes mom come alive, also. Although she is recovering from a hip fracture and unable to dance these days, we’ve participated in the bi-weekly tea dance program at the local senior center over the past four years and it was the highlight of her week. Playing well is undeniably one of the best prescriptions for living long and well. 

     Yet, there is another layer of meaning to the well-known saying. True, we grow old faster and speed up the inevitable when we are inactive. But aside from packing our days with activity, we are also encouraged by the quote to develop a sense of play, a playful spirit. We grow old because we lose sight of our playful spirit and stop playing. To engage in any activity requires a willingness to play, to participate. Cultivating a sense of play is the motor that drives the actual act of playing. We’re encouraged to be playful, curious, engaged with whatever aspect of life that makes us feel connected to others and the world around us. The HelpGuide.org stresses the importance of adult play to improve brain function and improve relationships and connection to others. Connection to others is particularly vital at later stages of life to alleviate isolation. Social isolation is associated with increased mortality. A sense of play gives us permission to reach out and explore the things to which we are drawn, and to find others for play. 

     How do we cultivate and nourish our sense of play?  Dr. Stuart Brown (no relation), founder and researcher of the National Institute for Play, created a “play personality” model to identify ten types of personalities in the area of play. Finding one’s “type” can be helpful self-exploration in preparation for finding the most suitable playground. It’s also useful to keep a journal, making note of the activities and things that spark interest or are reminders of interests from childhood and young adulthood. We can observe, record, and rediscover how these interests can be reclaimed.  

     The journey of self-discovery doesn’t have to end at any given point. Phoebe Catlin had been writing her memoirs about life as a teacher and guidance counselor for many years. She was 98 years old and in assisted living at a facility in St. Petersburg, Florida when we met in 2017.  I decided to publish her stories through my small, print on demand publishing company. Phoebe’s autobiography, I Could Tell You Stories, was released in 2020. She was 103 then and thrilled to be able to enjoy her life’s passion before passing away six months later. Her story reminds us to keep following our passions for as long as possible.

     Finding and developing our sense of play will lead us to find new playgrounds. What talents, skills, or interests have lain dormant in us over the years? Even activities where we lack talent can bring great joy as we explore how untalented we are in that area. The key is to find our bliss and immerse ourselves in play.

Jocelyn A. Brown, PhD, is the founder and director of Silver Wings Arts Program, an adult day center in Boulder focused on music, art, and movement. For more information, visit silverwingsartsprogram.org or call 720-436-6397 or 970-480-7505. Email seniorsitterscolorado@gmail.com

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