As a child growing up in Sydney’s inner west, the country values of Maurie Voisey-Barlin’s father would have more influence on his life than he could ever have imagined.
“My dad was from the country. He grew up in Taree and he used to just stop and talk to everybody, so I guess when I look at what I do now, you could say that I’m channeling my dad,” said Maurie.
After many years spent watching his father (Maurie Snr) engage in conversations with all members of the local community, young Maurie’s observations began to shape his own personality.
“When I was a kid, people who were living with a disability were treated very poorly and many families kept their disabled family members sheltered, but my dad would go out of his way to interact with them and he coached us kids into doing the same,” said Maurie.
“We would always go over for a game of cards or just to play, and we learned to treat all people the same way. He taught us to treat people like people.”
After studying the performing arts at the University of Western Sydney, Maurie’s passion for engaging the vulnerable and less fortunate saw him become a founding member of a theatre company that tutored homeless and disadvantaged members of the community.
Shortly after that, Maurie began running weekly theatre sessions for people living with disabilities, eventually winning over the carers and inspiring them to take part in a number of productions with their clients.
“When carers started to get involved and became a part of the show, we had more of a scope to do things, so this empowered everyone involved,” said Maurie.
“My greatest joy is watching people who are perceived as having low expectations and then watching them soar by drawing out their cheekiness and their happiness. That’s how you create a bond.”
Although initiatives like Clown Doctors and humour therapy have been widely used in hospital settings for decades, the benefits of similar programs in aged care facilities were first brought to light in Australia in 2011.
Studies that were conducted in aged care homes across Sydney revealed that humour worked just as well as antipsychotic drugs when it came to treating agitation in people living with dementia.
This research was highlighted by a 20% reduction in overall agitation (using the Cohen-Mansfield agitation scale) and an overall increase in social engagement and quality of life.
Sydney’s now-defunct Art’s Health Institute (AHI) was once a pioneer in delivering humorous intervention and engagement to Australian nursing home residents, and Maurie was an integral part of this initiative before a lack of funding forced its closure.
Armed with a passion for engagement and a lifetime of experience crafting interactive routines, Maurie continued his practice and has since established his own brand of ‘Creative Therapeutic Engagement’ as one of Australia’s most sought after initiatives
“I felt that It was important to embrace feedback as well as log discoveries and then report as any other allied health professional would,” said Maurie.
“As clients began to understand what I was unlocking in their residents, then they began to see the value in this approach.
Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Maurie had been delivering Creative Therapeutic Engagement sessions on a weekly basis for five different aged care providers in the Hunter Region in NSW.
Maurie believes that his programs are only one of the potential solutions to combating social isolation and improving the lives of older people, but recent circumstances have forced him to adapt his approach.
As aged care providers around the country frantically began to bolster infection control methods to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Maurie began receiving calls from facility managers who could no longer allow Maurie into their facility due to the risk involved.
Although Maurie completely understood the reasoning behind this stance from providers, a manager at Whiddon’s picturesque, Larg’s facility, was more interested in figuring how to ensure that their residents did not miss out on their visits with Maurie.
“I told the manager, Suzie, that instead of going into the building, perhaps I could just visit people at their windows and interact with them from there,” said Maurie.
“All of the residents had ground floor access, which meant that nobody who wanted to interact with me would have to miss out. Suzie and I were really excited by the prospect and she even coined the phrase ‘window therapy.’
As joyous photos of residents engaging with Maurie found their way to Whiddon’s head office, Maurie was soon asked to ply his trade at two other Whiddon facilities that resulted in even better results.
Soon after this, a smaller independent aged care home called Merton Living also decided to give it a go.
In what can best be described as a combination between Charlie Chaplin, Graham Kennedy, and Norman Gunston, Maurie creates an interactive experience for residents that is driven by their own reactions.
Window Therapy is part vaudeville, part improv, part interview, and fully immersive.
In some instances, Maurie finds himself taking direction from his audience behind the glass until they eventually try to let him in, while on other occasions residents and staff revel in the opportunity to prevent Maurie from coming in.
On one occasion, Maurie actually found himself under-fire as residents and staff who were armed with NERF guns and foam bullets attempted to use him for target practice.
Upon viewing Maurie’s work, it’s important to highlight that the level of interactivity on display from participants goes far beyond the realms of simple entertainment.
This is high-level, therapeutic engagement, that is contagious and allows residents to tap into the most positive parts of their own personality.
“There is something special in being invited into an elder’s playful or private space, and I know I am there for the last leg of the journey,” said Maurie.
“In my life, all my elders are all gone, so these friendships that I build in my work are so very special.”
“It’s an honour and privilege to get to walk with them as they approach their exit. It is very beautiful work.”
Photos Courtesy of Maurie Voisley-Barlin