Have you ever watched a child’s face at the exact moment they unwrap a Christmas present to find the gift they’ve asked Santa for? Their eyebrows raise, the mouth opens and their eyes get big and round… they look up at you and gasp “ITS EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED!!!”.
I was lucky enough to witness that recently… but I wasn’t with children.
I was at the Bankstown City Aged Care facility, which is home to 150 elderly residents who can no longer care for themselves. For some, their bodies are failing them, like 103-year-old Ella who is mentally fit, but whose knees have given out so she can no longer walk on her own.
For others like Luigi, dementia has started to take hold and slowly but surely, they’re becoming trapped inside their own minds.
Regardless of their age or ailment, there was one thing that brought a smile to every single face while I was there. His name was Archie, and he is an Elder Clown.
The Elder Clown’s program has been introduced to aged care facilities by The Humour Foundation, to help ease the burden of dementia for those living with the disease, and those caring for them. The program brings medicine and the arts together in a professional partnership, and addresses the psychosocial needs of residents in a very unique way. Elder Clowns aim to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia. They encourage positive interactions with others and bring happiness to what can sometimes be a very lonely and confusing time.
Archie has been working with Bankstown City Aged Care for several months and knows almost every resident by name already. He knows their likes and their dislikes, he shares stories with them and asks them for advice – all while dressed as a clown. Complete with red nose, novelty flowers and a bag of tricks, each week he visits a select number of patients who the staff feel need a bit of extra attention.
It was fascinating to watch.
Our visit began with a staff debrief about the residents we were going to see; who was in a good mood, who was cranky, and who would appreciate a bit of cheering up. We started with a lady called Lillian, who loved to watch Archie perform songs with his ukulele. She would happily join in and sing along before critiquing his performance (quite harshly!), and when he was done she erupted into applause with a huge smile on her face.
Next we saw Hazel, who had just returned from a trip to hospital. Staff had been concerned about her as she appeared a little withdrawn since arriving home, but as soon as Archie walked through the door her face lit up and there was an obvious change in her demeanour. He asked for her advice about a suitable birthday present for his mother, and she enthusiastically encouraged him to buy her a scarf.
As we walked to the next room, Archie turned to me and admitted the next patient was his most challenging. It was a woman by the name of Patricia who had lost the ability to communicate both physically, and verbally. She was literally trapped inside her own body. I watched as Archie sang her a song and focused on holding her gaze, and when she attempted to wave at him his eyes welled up and you could see the sense of achievement on his face. He had connected with her – which is what he’d set out to do.
As we continued on, we could hear resident Luigi from down the hall! He was a loud and outspoken Italian who was new to the facility, and didn’t quite understand what was happening to him. It took him a bit of time to warm up to Archie, but eventually they were comparing wolf whistles and reminiscing about the good ol’ days!
Archie continued on his route, stopping to say hello to any of the residents who wanted to engage with him. It was incredible to watch some of them go from a near vegetative state to bright, bubbly and happy human beings, all because of a clown.