Making Time

Over two years ago Riding Lights began a series of exploratory workshops with people living with dementia. The project was called Unwrapping The Present. We wanted to see if there were any ways in which our theatre-making skills might be useful to families, carers and staff in enhancing their communication skills and, by doing so, support their relationships.

“There was one workshop where I was absolutely astounded, gobsmacked is not quite the word, at the way she responded to the activity that you put in front of her…much more than I was getting from her at home. The routine of the carer was to run the home and do all the things that were necessary and look after the person. You could say to yourself you haven’t got the time but, then again, if I had the technique I might have been getting more from her at home.” A Carer.

We soon recognised that ‘one size’ does not ‘fit all’ and that every family and every individual are on different journeys. There is not one simple solution. We did, however, discover a number of principles that you might find helpful.

Pause (for thought)

It can be difficult with the pressures on professional carers or family members to carve out dedicated ‘quality’ time for communication. Setting aside some time and space for focussed ‘play’ can bring about some surprising results. These sessions don’t need to be long, in fact, we found that anything above 45 minutes was too taxing for everyone. In Simeon’s Watch, Rina finds it much easier to make this time than Leah who is struggling with the pressures of the home.


 Set aside 25 minutes for a pleasurable table-top activity. Make sure there are no other distractions. Make it special by, perhaps, moving the table to the centre of the room or playing a key piece of music before you begin. Avoid any expectations. Don’t try and force a conversation. See what happens. If it works try creating this ‘play’ session on a regular basis. If it doesn’t experiment with  a different activity.

Rituals and Reassurance

For our sessions, whether we were working with groups or individuals, we always started our sessions in the same way, often armed with a pot of tea! Arranging the room or a table in a particular or slightly unusual way became a regular signal that we were about to ‘do’ something important. Playing a piece of music at the start often helped transport us somewhere else and helped us open a conversation.

Making Memories

Although it was very common for people to recall and share their stories, it was important to us that these ‘play’ sessions weren’t about remembering the past. We wanted our activities to be about the present. To bring peace and playfulness into the ‘now.’ The sessions should be joyful experiences in and of themselves.


Make your activity something which neither of you has done before: Clay modelling, flower arranging, origami. It helps if the activity is physical in nature so that conversation, should it flow, won’t disrupt the task. Discover it together.

Accepting the Present

As actors, especially in improvisation, we train to respond ‘in the moment’. When we set up a ‘play’ session we set aside our expectations – whatever happened or did not happen did not matter. It was enough simply to be present together. While we might enjoy a shared activity (colouring, story-making, poetry reading) it did not matter if the activity was abandoned and replaced with a conversation about something else or even another activity altogether. In Simeon’s Watch, Rina doesn’t always know where the conversation will go or how bizarre it might become. Sometimes the results are surprising and revelatory.

Sparks Fly

Although we set no expectations for our ‘play’ sessions we used different stimuli in the hope that it might encourage greater communication. We experimented with different ‘sparks’. The most effective of these were often the personal possessions of the people themselves – photo albums or paintings. Precious things that had a long connection. Least effective was literature read aloud (unless the person was already familiar with it) or photographs without a personal connection. The most effective were flowers. There was a high level of delight from their smell, their appearance and their nature as tactile objects. A baby doll encouraged varied and sometimes painful memories.


We used film (see Memory Bank resources), objects with a personal connection, period objects (raid the charity shops) without a personal connection, favourite poetry, flowers, old-fashioned sweets (although this put an end to conversation!), and music. You could also try clothes, jewellery, tools etc. Anything that might connect strongly with an activity or location.