dementia & brain health

When work is play

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Having spent most of my early adulthood taking myself pretty seriously, several years ago I made a commitment to incorporating more silliness and play into my life. College and graduate school in my 20’s had been good years, but they weren’t very fun years. And the 24-hour nature of the work that I did as a geriatric care manager (and a partner in a business) throughout my 30’s was rewarding, but exhausting. So as 40 was closing in on me, I decided to get serious about not being quite so serious.

I started small, adding little doses of play and creativity into my daily life – trying new drop-in art classes, and making up fun challenges for myself on morning runs. I began reading more science fiction, a genre I’d always enjoyed but rarely made time for because I thought it was “frivolous.” And I took an improv workshop, which scared me, challenged me, made me laugh, and changed me forever. Within a year I’d made a huge career change and was sleeping better, thinking more clearly, and laughing much more often. And I can trace all of these changes to the development of one key skill: learning how to play.

Play reinforces knowledge and develops emotional intelligence. It creates social connection, fosters empathy, and relieves stress. To me it’s become as important as sleep, exercise, and vegetables. It’s almost as important as coffee.

I’m not one of those “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” types. I deeply love the work that I do, but I recognize it as work, and know that I need time away from it, every day, both for rest and for play. While I’m almost always thinking about work, these days the thoughts are a pleasant creative buzz, and not the oppressive burden of a to-do list. But I’m clear with myself and with others about when I am working and when I am not, and am thoughtful about maintaining that boundary, porous and imperfect as it may be. Nonetheless, sometimes my play is actually work, and sometimes my work is play.

I spent the past week in Scottsdale, Arizona on what I’d call a “working vacation,” hiking in the blooming Sonoran Desert with my husband and spending time with my in-laws, who live in the area, but also attending a board meeting and planning retreat with the National Academy of Certified Care Managers, and presenting a breakout session at the Aging Life Care Association’s national conference. In partnership with two colleagues with whom I work closely here in San Diego to deliver dementia education programs that employ improvisation and storytelling techniques, Chris Nielson and Vanessa Wilde, we shared a program called Not the Same Old Story: Reminiscing and Storytelling with People with Dementia. We showed a room full of professional care managers the impact that stories and connections to emotional memories can have for people who are living with memory loss and those who care for them. The session was alive with laughter and insights gained through the shared experiences of listening to each other, and telling stories to (and with) each other through structured activities and group play.

Me and my favorite “playmates,” Vanessa Wilde and Chris Nielson

As children, we learned almost everything we know about the world through play. And if we’re not careful, we’ll grow up and forget how to keep learning. I’m so grateful to have reconnected to this cognitive superpower with the help of Vanessa and Chris, who I like to refer to as my “professional playmates,” and to the Aging Life Care Association for welcoming this trio of oddballs to join a great lineup of impactful speakers and educational sessions.

If you incorporate play into your learning, work, or daily life – or if you’re thinking about ways that you might do more of it in the future – I’d love to hear your story.

2 thoughts on “When work is play”

  1. So needed this reminder to play, more than you know! I think through my work, like you that I love, and my personal family challenges with the caregiving role, I lean towards my task master and need to lean more towards my play master.

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