My Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit training throughly covered the entertainment of children, visitors and employees in a hospital setting using improvisational comedy and classic clowning techniques. They prepared us well for any encounter in our role as hospital clowns. I loved the idea of doing something similar for seniors. I began my nursing career working in assisted living facilities and I wondered if this art form would work for that population or if clowning would seem too insulting for them.
Part of the sensitivity training I received in the nursing home included avoiding terms of endearment with adults who are not related to us. Calling these residents things like “honey” , “sweetheart”, “papa”, “nana” is disrespectful to them, whether they are confused or not. They should be addressed as Ms., Miss, Mrs. or Mr. along with their last name, unless they want you to call them by their first name. They should be treated as adults, whether they have childlike qualities or not. With all this in mind, I wondered how our type of entertainment could be appealing to them. Thankfully, the organization already had a plan.
About a year after I joined the CCU, they showed us a video of a program they were developing that was especially designed for seniors in an assisted living setting. The performers did not go from room to room, as each room in an assisted living facility is considered a given resident’s home, so the entertainment was limited to common areas, especially the rooms designated for such group activities. Although costumes and visual comedy were utilized, clown makeup was avoided altogether (examples of classic clowns without makeup: Lucy, Mr. Bean and Harpo Marx).
They created characters that were of an era which that generation could relate to, and these characters had a tendency to sing and dance songs of yesteryear. What they did was cabaret-like in nature. The performers chosen for this project were extremely talented with musical instruments and singing, but they also had an ability to do comedy that was witty and sophisticated enough so as to not be childish and insulting. They also had special training to be able to reach dementia patients in a gentle, non-threatening way. Participation was encouraged at every turn.
It is possible to treat adults in their golden years to performances using our art form, but it, like hospital clowning, requires special training. It is vital that performers help residents maintain their dignity while adding some fun to their day.
Lucy E. Nunez has been a theatrical performer since 2002. She created Nurse Lulu for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in 2014. She was a resident clown there and at Baptist Children's Hospital. For more information please visit: www.sunnybearbuds.wix.com/buds