We know that children benefit from play. They learn about the world, engage with each other, as well as getting moving and active in their environments.
Play is no different for older people, who also can benefit from social connectedness, exercise, and using their minds in creative ways.
Play is also simply a great opportunity to have some fun.
“You don’t stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing,” said George Bernard Shaw.
So, how can we encourage older people to engage in play, and to reap the benefits?
Ageless Grace® is a quality-of-life and wellness tool that engages people in playful exercises combined with simple movements. It requires concentration and co-ordination – exercising the brain while it exercises the body.
The most common feedback from those who take part in Ageless Grace classes is that it’s fun – both for the person in the class and for the person leading the group.
Anita Pulie is an Ageless Grace trainer. She holds classes in retirement villages, nursing homes, as well as private homes. She told HelloCare she started teaching the courses four years ago and hasn’t stopped.
“We haven’t stopped because we’ve seen the benefits,” she said.
“We always get such positive feedback, whether it be (improved) mental health and wellbeing, feeling really happy, being in the community, having a good laugh, or interacting and having togetherness,” she said.
Sue Silcox, who first brought the program to Australia, says when students are taking part in Ageless Grace classes they are completely ‘in the moment’.
“People forget what’s going on elsewhere with their lives,” she said.
“These exercises work the whole body, but people don’t actually realise they are exercising.”
Some of the activities, such as ‘Get down, Get up’, can be quite energetic as participants move up, down and around, moving their heart and chest as well as their limbs and their sense of humour!
Ageless Grace allows older people to forget some of the limitations of their ageing bodies, Ms Silcox said. “People will often say, ‘I can’t move my shoulder, and I say, ‘That’s fine, don’t move it.’
“But you can see they’re moving it – within their limitations,” she said.
People also say Ageless Grace has improved their physical abilities. Those who once couldn’t touch their toes, gradually find they can.
An Ageless Grace class can include facial exercises, which has the practical benefits of reducing tension in the jaw, and can reduce headaches and even eyestrain. One benefit for people whose mouths can become dry, is that exercising the mouth helps with rehydration, which in turn assists with eating, talking, and dental hygiene.
Another focus in the class can be on the hands, helping people continue doing activities that help preserve their independence, such as doing up buttons and zippers, tying their shoes, and other daily care activities. Often not practiced in other forms of exercising, moving the hands can help relieve arthritis and is something they can remember to do regularly, outside of class.
Ageless Grace can help to improve people’s cognitive skills, with some of the exercises designed specifically to stimulate the brain and to encourage neuroplasticity. Doing these exercises on a regular basis (preferably every day for a few minutes) helps slow both physical and cognitive decline and helps us feel good about ourselves.
Ms Silcox said one activity, which requires simple counting with changing patterns, helps participants to stay alert and responsive to changes in their environment.
“People love it,” she said. “They love the security of the beat as we count, the challenge of keeping up with sudden change and the playfulness of seeing others get it wrong, too. Over the years I have been teaching classes, I have seen improvements in people’s reactions and have had to make the exercises more and more difficult, which is also a challenge for me!”
A woman who had been taking part in the classes for around a year found she was far less anxious about regular cognitive tests with her doctor because with Ageless Grace she was always trying new activities.
The doctor asked the woman to spell words backwards, which is one is one of the Ageless Grace exercises. The woman achieved her best result ever!
“She totally nailed it!” Ms Pulie said, adding that the woman felt a great sense of achievement.
Ms Silcox said Ageless Grace is particularly helpful for people living with dementia.
“The connection and engagement we make through a little bit of play reduces their social isolation because we are engaging with them. It reduces their anxiety and depression.”
Some exercises call on the participants to remember activities from their past. This simple ‘remembering’ is pleasurable for people living with dementia.
For example, one of the activities could be to imagine making a cup of tea. To do so, they have to remember how they made tea in the past, some recalling the tea parties they may have had when they were younger. “It’s a happy time. You’ve got the memory, you’ve got the music, you’ve got the movement, and you’re watching other people. They often say, ‘Isn’t this funny’, and you all laugh,” Ms Silcox said.
The exercises are usually done in chairs, which means the participants can extend their bodies safely. Having to move while seated also means that participants have to think about how to move.
“If you were asked to ride a bike, for example, most people would be able to do it quite easily. But when you ask them to do it in a chair, they have to think about how their bodies need to move. What was once a normal response becomes something to think about, just as you did when you started to learn how to ride that bike.”
“Besides that, the fact that they’re in a chair means people who would not normally exercise are happy to move and have fun,” Ms Silcox said.
“It makes them feel, particularly as they are getting older, more secure. And yet we provide imagination and stimulations that gets them to move their hips, their spine, their joints and many other body parts.”
An Ageless Grace participant in her 90s told Ms Pulie the day she comes to class is the only day of the week she laughs.
“She has a husband who has high care needs… Having a good belly laugh is what she looks forward to,” Ms Pulie said.
Ageless Grace helps older people exercise, but it’s also an opportunity to play – to have fun and to make connections.
“As we get older, we tend to shrink inside ourselves. So if we can reach out, extend the range we move, it helps us have more space for our organs to do their job.” Ms Silcox said.
“Reaching out is lovely, because it allows us to connect with our neighbours. We sit in a circle, and we can connect and engage with each other.”
Learning how to use the Ageless Grace tools is also easy and fun, making it accessible to many people, including in aged care. Training to become an Ageless Grace Educator is available across Australia.
Image: Sue Silcox.