Celebrating laughter

The unique humour therapy program at the heart of the SMILE study and featured in the documentary, The Smile Within, has cause for celebration.

Above:  Jean-Paul Bell and Carolyn Tranter cut the birthday cake to celebrate The Play Up Program’s first birthday

By Keryn Curtis

The humour therapy program at the centre of the high profile SMILE study – the NHMRC-funded collaboration between the Humour Foundation, the University of New South Wales and the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre (DCRC) – has celebrated its first birthday with cake and plenty of laughter. 

The Play Up Program celebrated its first milestone last week with a party at The Whiddon Group’s Easton Park facility at Glenfield in Sydney’s west, alongside a two day audition process for new Play Up performers. 

Play Up performers and ‘partners’ in costume, staff from the Arts Health Institute and performers auditioning for the Play Up role joined residents and other care staff to celebrate the positive impact the program has had on staff and residents alike.

The Glenfield site was the first to sign up to implement the Play Up Program in July 2011, following the successful outcomes of the SMILE study.  Since then, the Whiddon Group has continued to expand the program across different levels of care and increasing in frequency to three days each week.  Together with over 12 trained staff as Play Up Partners, the three performers see 60 residents on a regular basis and the Whiddon Group continues to by provide the Glenfield site as a training facility for new performers to work in the program.

Arts Health Institute Artistic Director and original Play Up Performer, Jean-Paul Bell said the program provides more than humour therapy to specific residents. 

“It also benefits the facility generally by engaging the staff and improving morale.  Family members who come to visit on Play Up days also get involved in the interactions and enjoy the fun and laugher of the sessions and it also has an impact of other residents. We estimate that for one resident there are another three that benefit,” he said.

“Staff at the Easton Park campus have noticed that the confidence levels of staff and self- esteem levels have improved markedly.  They love being Play Up partners and having it on the campus there.”

But finding performers who can carry out the work can be a challenge, says Bell, particularly in the remote locations of some of The Whiddon Group facilities.

“There’s an ongoing need to recruit. There are lot of pilots going on around Australia and if they like what is happening, they will want to expand the program to other sites.

“Trying to find the right people to suit and not burning out your performers is a constant challenge, especially in the more distant locations. We try every 12 weeks to change the performers in a facility.  That gives the staff and the Play Up partners a better idea of the range of skills of the performers across the broad tapestry of the performing arts and the range of different partners,” he said.

“We’re looking for extremely professional and adaptable performers. It definitely helps if you have a lot of experience in the performing arts but you need to be able to adjust to working in this area. You need a lot of empathy and the ability to cope with the stresses and strains of the situation.”

Above:  Play Up performers in maroon uniforms and newly graduated recruits in white at the party.

The Arts Health Institute signed an agreement in December last year to implement the program across the remaining Whiddon Group facilities in rural and remote NSW. Performers are currently providing direct services to 315 residents each week across the group, totalling an estimated 273,420 client interactions to date.

In June, they commenced the Dalwood-Wylie Circuit with a performer traveling over three days every week to the The Whiddon Group facilities in the rural towns of Kelso, Condobolin and Temora. The circuit is named in honour of the Dalwood-Wylie Charitable Foundation which supports the additional travel costs of the program. 

The last of the facilities in The Whiddon Group commenced the program earlier this month with a performer visiting residents in Bourke, Walgett, Wee Waa and Narrabri each week.   The logistics for these locations have been the most challenging to date.  The Arts Health Institute has provided additional support for the performer’s travel costs until further benefactor support can be found.  The Whiddon Group also provides some travel costs to assist.

The Play Up Program and the SMILE study

The Play Up Program was used in the world’s first large-scale randomised trial to gauge the effectiveness of humour therapy in residential aged care. In that study, professional performers went into 36 nursing homes and hostels around Sydney over 12 weeks to assess the effects of humour on the level of mood and quality of life for residents; as well as the impact on staff morale and retention; and long term program sustainability. 

The study found that the effect of the humour intervention was about the same as the effect of antipsychotics but without the side effects.

A film about the SMILE study and the Play Up program called The Smile Within  screened on the ABC1’s Compass program in March this year.  The film is now available as a DVD.    

Tags: arts-health-institute, jean-paul-bell, play-up-program, smile-study, whiddon-group,

3 thoughts on “Celebrating laughter

  1. As a registered nurse I participated with great interest in the training/audition last week and feel inspired to develop my performing skills to better assist the elderly

  2. I was the performer who had the real honour of taking this work out to Bourke, Walgett, Wee Waa and Narrabri. The remoteness of these places was a challenge, but the residents are just beautiful and I think that Play Up has made an unforgettable impact.

  3. I am a “Certified Laughter Yoga Leader” (American School of Laughter Yoga) based on Dr Madan Kataria’s methods. For the past five years I have been conducting a class at the Reedbeds Community Centre, Fulham, South Australia (Coordinator is Rose Dunn (08) 8235 1644). The class attracts mainly retired people – though we have had enthusiastic responses from two-year-olds! We continually add new and original routines. Those on chemotherapy or recovering from chemo derive benefit from the camaraderie. I have also given classes in retirement homes and for National Seniors. I do not charge for my services.

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