Exploring the Benefits of Drama Therapy for Emotional Well-being and Social Connection in Older Adults

with Kirsten Ajax,

Graduate Research Assistant, Kansas State University

This week on the Art of Aging, host Michael Hughes welcomes Kirsten Ajax,a drama therapist and Graduate Research Assistant at Kansas State University. During the episode, Mike and Kirsten discuss the field of drama therapy and its transformative impact on older adults. She discusses the benefits of drama therapy in fostering emotional expression, social connection, and personal growth among seniors. Kirsten highlights the importance of community building and creativity in therapy, and shares inspiring stories, including one about a resilient woman involved in the civil rights movement as one of the freedom writers. The episode underscores the potential of drama therapy to enhance the emotional well-being and quality of life for older adults, and so much more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • Kirsten’s Background and Passion for Drama Therapy (0:07)
  • Drama Therapy: Definition and History (8:28)
  • Community Building and Emotional Regulation (10:27)
  • Exercises for Rebuilding Community (15:29)
  • Creative Energy and Therapeutic Benefits (20:15)
  • The Importance of Creativity (22:43)
  • Individualized Trauma Therapy (25:17)
  • Retraining and Building Resilience (27:28)
  • Self-Forgiveness and Self-Awareness (30:17)
  • Restoring Identity in Older Adults (33:19)
  • Therapy for Caregiver-Care Recipient Dyad (00:38:26)
  • Abundant Aging Questions for Kirsten (41:31)
  • Final Thoughts and Takeaways (46:06)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit abundantagingpodcast.com


Michael Hughes 00:07
Hello and welcome to The Art of aging which is part of the abundant aging podcast series from United Church homes. On this show, we look at what it means to age in America and in other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage and inspire everyone everywhere to age with abundance. Today, I am so pleased to welcome Kirsten Ajax to the show. And Kirsten is a third year graduate student studying drama therapy at Kansas State University. And we’re gonna be talking today about applications of drama therapy for older adults. It’s very cool. She’s a graduate research assistant at the K-State spectrum center, a student committee representative for the North American drama Therapy Association’s student committee and a student member of the Kansas Counseling Association. Kirsten is originally from the East Coast. She received her BFA from the University of Arts in Philadelphia and has worked as an actor, a teaching artist and educator for over 18 years. She’s passionate about supporting people with equity, equality and communication fostering healthy environments for creative success. Kirsten is a UCL arts and healing alum receiving her SCA facilitator certification in social emotional learning. And as an SCA, she facilitates emotional awareness utilizing trauma informed creative approaches, honors verbal and non speaking communication neurodiversity learning differences and emphasizes self care stress management to maximize the benefit of arts on mental health. She currently has insurance with incarcerated women at the Topeka Correctional Facility at Meadowlark senior living facility in the memory care and Parkinson’s unit. And with Indian Hills Elementary School Special Education Department Kirsten welcomed.

Kirsten Ajax 01:43
Thank you so much for having me, man. Well, you’re

Michael Hughes 01:46
just sort of applying drama therapy all over the place, you know, from inmates to kids to older adults. And oh, and just for sort of before we dive into it, just a reminder to our listeners, that this podcast series is sponsored by United Church homes, Ruth frost Parker center for abundant aging, and Kirsten. You, you certainly do promote abundant aging. So to learn more about the center, including our annual symposium in October of every year visit United Church homestead org slash Parker hyphen center. So again, getting back to a cure, so that means, you know, you could be doing a lot with drama therapy. I know that you do this for a variety of different audiences. But you do have this I think interests with older adults, what’s driving your passion there? Absolutely.

Kirsten Ajax 02:31
So I have always worked with the senior population. When I was younger, I was a certified arthritis instructor. I was a certified AEA water aerobics instructor and I was a SilverSneakers. Instructor. So working with the senior population has just been very natural. For me, it just kind of feels good, it feels right. I was also the youngest in my family, for forever, I was surrounded by much older, wiser people. I grew up with an older sister, and then my father is the youngest of his family. So I was just always the youngest. And you know, we could look at that as a bad thing. But I looked at it as really a great thing, because it was such sage wisdom that I always got from different people. And I was surrounded by these artifacts and these gorgeous antiques and all of these different stories that I was told throughout my childhood, about how this came from this place. Or we did this at this time. And it really impacted a lot on me about how important it is to keep that generational respect. And that generational communication is alive. My grandmother, who was the youngest of her siblings, passed away when she was 101, my great aunt passed away when she was 103. And my other great aunt passed away when she was 105. So growing up with, you know, much older and wiser people than I was, as a child, I looked up their stories about the Great Depression, and I looked at different things that they had to do and the struggles that they had to go through. And it was just very empowering to learn about that. So it was a natural transition for me to want to work with seniors and be a part of the senior community. Wow, that is, you

Michael Hughes 04:15
It’s so interesting to sort of, you know, very few of us have really grown up with that sense of kind of, you know, history, right, that’s through line of storytelling and with, with objects. You know, on an earlier podcast, we had the founders of artifacts, which is a startup that we did, the episode was on Swedish death cleaning, and I know that sounds really kind of, I know, I know. But the idea is that you have these things in your home, and if you can share stories around those things, and those things become more valuable so that people want them and the score they told was around like a dinner service. And I guess one of the ladies, her I think parents or grandmother was a diplomat in Africa, in the 50s and 60s and they had to get their own China sets. They brought it over from France. And these days people don’t want what old China says, but with the story, it then has new context. And then everybody kind of wants that, that China, so it must be, I guess it must be hard to get rid of stuff. Your Oh yeah, I

Kirsten Ajax 05:13
I actually have my grandmother’s China, I do. I have it, I have certain things that I’ve kept because there is such a sentimental value. When I was a child, we had this curious kind of Secretary. And it had all of the non important antiques, I would say, for when my grandfather was in the war. And he brought back all these artifacts from different places, and there was different money from different countries, and I had to play with it. I was allowed to take everything out and look at it and play with it. So it was so important, so precious. But I was also allowed to play with it and can be rough with it, because it wasn’t like the very important, you know, antiques. So I kind of gain this love of older things and things that are beyond me that have a story that I want to know about.

Michael Hughes 06:02
Yeah, yeah. And I want to get into this concept of drama therapy, especially with older adults. But first, I just want to read you are always an actress, were you always somebody that wanted to perform and to sort of, you know, just really express yourself in that way.

Kirsten Ajax 06:16
I was yeah, you know, I’m a redhead. So very much a beacon wherever I go, people see me. So it was kind of a thing as a child that I really stood out. And I really just wanted to be around people and talk and engage my earliest memory of performing or wanting to perform. I was in preschool, and we had our Christmas concert. And I apparently must have taken over something. Because they didn’t reprimand me, they supported me. And they gave me a sign that said, director, and so I’ve got to where I was an angel, you know, in the Christmas Pageant. And instead of just having this angel Einstein that said, director, and it was so important, because I was fostered at such a young age that performing was important, it was important and what you can stay means things and people will listen. So yes, since I was a very young child, I’ve always wanted to communicate and to act things out and play. We didn’t have a pool growing up, you know, we didn’t have any sort of watering hole by where I grew up. But I did get to go to the YMCA in the summers. And during the winter, I would create pool scenes in my house and I would dive off the coffee table. And you know, everything was always embodied and physical with me. So it was a natural progression for me to go into theater and to go into acting because I loved it. I love being able to get up there and communicate stories and impact people in a positive way. And that’s how I always went about, you know, theater and acting was that if you feel something, we’re doing our job, you don’t always have to feel great about it. You don’t always have to love it. But if you leave the theater feeling something that means we as the actors, directors, playwrights, we’ve done our job. So that’s kind of how I progressed. And I ended up teaching theater. I taught creative movement, makeup directing, monologue work, and it just kind of progressed like that. So I was a teaching artist, I was a professional actor. I was a figure model, I did pretty much everything that you can do in the industry. Gotcha.

Michael Hughes 08:25
And then now you’re doing drama therapy. So what is drama therapy? Absolutely.

Kirsten Ajax 08:28
So drama therapy has its roots very far back, probably like the 40s or the 50s with psychodrama when Jacob Marino’s considered like the father of psychodrama, but Kurt Shatner wanted to change things and wanted to do it a little bit differently. So drama therapy has been around for a long time, but it didn’t actually become recognized as a therapeutic modality until the late 70s. So we are somewhat of a fledgling, you know, modality, but it has its roots, so far back of performing and helping within different populations within different diversities all over the world. So drama therapy, it’s an embodied practice. And it is active and experiential. And it provides context for clients to tell their stories, set goals and solve problems by expressing feelings, and then achieving catharsis. The drama and the breadth and the depth that we have of our inner experience can be actively explored and the interpersonal relationship and skills can be enhanced. And some of our core processes that we have in drama therapy are dramatic projection, embodiment, role playing, and personification, playing, which is a wonderful thing. We all need that in life, drum at the drama, life connection and then transformation. And so we’re under the umbrella of the creative and expressive art therapies such as dance and movement, art therapy, music therapy, we are under that umbrella of expressive and creative arts therapies,

Michael Hughes 10:03
and now, we’re talking specifically about older people, what sort of context is that approach? And really, how do people approach you? What sort of what are you helping your clients really generally work through? Without sort of, you know, being too invasive of anyone’s particular situation? But it, you know, what sort of situations are you finding yourself in, that you’re helping older people kind of work through with drama?

Kirsten Ajax 10:26
Absolutely. So we are a strengths based approach. We don’t come at our clients as any sort of deficit based and we believe that everyone has the ability, everybody has strengths, regardless of how small or how untapped they are, as trauma therapists, we really look at community and the community building that is really inherent in all of us and the need for it. So something that I really wanted to focus on with my seniors is community building skills. Because it’s something that’s so important, and that really gets lost as we age, you know, we will move away, we change where we live, we lose people in our lives. So that sense of community that we once had, really starts to fail away or fall away. And so drama therapy really helps activate that community building sense that we all need in life. It also works on pro social behavior. So those helping skills, those listening skills, those awareness skills of other people. And as we age, you know, we have different cognitive things that happened to us and different cognitive declines. So drama therapy really helps a lot with our executive functioning. And it helps with our working memory, it helps with sequencing, it helps with rhythms and patterns. And then there’s emotional regulation. And those are kind of my three, four things that I really focus on. emotional regulation is something that everyone can use, regardless of our age, there’s going to be moments in time that we don’t feel okay. We’re, you know, our kids about to blow off. And we’re really upset, or we’re really sad. And we’re not able to get to a regulated state, which, you know, we require in life to have that regulated state so that we can communicate properly. So drama therapy helps the seniors build those skills that, you know, maybe they had, maybe they didn’t have, but it’s like a refresher, I like to call it PE for the brain, right? It’s your gym time for your brain, it’s going to help you, it’s going to build those skills, or maybe it’s going to revitalize those skills. We use lots of different techniques, specifically with seniors. Some of them are TimeSlips stories, which were created by a wonderful professor in Waukee. Playback theater. We use things such as Yes. And that’s a big one. Yes. And we don’t say no. Is that, you know, really a negative connotation? No, yes. And why not? Yes. And at all we can Yes. And everything. We use apps, no dramas, we use improvisation. We work with creativity and CO creativity. And that’s something that’s really important too, is to build the skills of the other individuals around you. Working in memory care in Parkinson’s, we, you know, often forget that these things are so important for enriching our lives, our creativity enriches our lives. There have been a lot of times that I have been in senior facilities, and it’s, oh, you wish better. You want better for these people. And it was something that was a drive for me. And we have a great facility here in Manhattan, Kansas. It is phenomenal. So they’re doing wonderful things. But I just wanted to bring that drama therapy, that drama, life connections to the seniors, especially in Parkinson’s, and memory care and their caregivers. Because it’s stressful, it is stressful and hard and difficult to go through life with the myriad of things that we have, but then add on to it, Parkinson’s, or dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s even more stressful. So if you just get one hour or an hour and a half of your week that you get to come to a group, sit and talk, maybe explore something that’s going on, have that support system, do something fun and engaging and get your brain going and in a positive way. There’s nothing better than that. Absolutely.

Michael Hughes 14:17
I mean, you mean oh my gosh, you just said quite a lot there. I’m just fascinated by the sort of different elements of what you are working on. But let’s go, let’s go through a couple of these, maybe one by one. So when we talk about community building, and I think it’s interesting to me, because, you know, I guess I’ve seen sort of graphs on you know, how much time are you going to spend with other people in your life? And how much time are you going to spend by yourself? And as you look at this graph, the time spent by yourself once you get north of age 70 gist is up there. Right? So we all know, I mean, social isolation in itself may not be negative for certain people, but many people do experience the negative effects of being isolated? And so how? When you talk about rebuilding a sense of community? Is it done within that reflection that maybe this is the time where people are losing people that have known all their lives? And suddenly they don’t know how to start? Again? I don’t know if I’m just putting words in your mouth here. But no, yeah. What is that context? And what specific types of exercises do you like to do to rebuild that sense of community? Absolutely.

Kirsten Ajax 15:29
So one of the exercises that we use, one of the interventions is storytelling, right. And you have so many contexts within storytelling, but there’s a really fun one. And it always kind of gets messy. And it always kind of ends up just collapsing in a laughter ball. And if that’s what you’re really looking for, right, you’re not looking for perfection, you’re not looking for this detailed intricate story, you’re looking for those individuals to make eye contact with each other, and to listen, and to hear and have an awareness that they are part of something bigger than just themselves. So it’s called a one word story. And you go around, and everybody just says one word. And it’s so funny. And it goes in the craziest places. And there’s really no rhyme or reason to it, but you just kind of let it go. And then you go to the next level, and you do one word or skinny one sentence, right? And then we go on and on. And then what I like to do is incorporate musical instruments into it. So I like to incorporate musical sound bites or instruments, whatever it may be. And then that adds another layer of a different part of our brain that we’re accessing. Right? So I always like to layer on not just community building, but what else can we get from this? Right? So we’ve got this sense that we need community, it’s super important. But what is holding us back from having that community? Is it cognitive delays, cognitive functioning? Is it emotions that we’re not able to express? Is it our lack of awareness of others? So it goes in even deeper when I do my work about thinking, how the nuances of each individual coming into that room experiences life? How are they experiencing their life at that moment, and it is a really difficult process to think that maybe some people do want isolation, maybe some people do need this. But when we come together as a community, we have this amazing experience of support, togetherness, and we can fail, we can make mistakes, and we’ll still have that support, we’ll still be able to say, Hey, can I look to you and I know you’re going to be there for me. And that’s what I tried to really hone in on in my groups is that we are a support system, we are together, we’re gonna have bad days, you know, we’re gonna have days where there’s a conflict, there’s a difficult situation that one person is not seeing eye to eye on. But that’s also community, that’s part of what happens in community, working on those conflict resolution skills, working on seeing others for who they are and what they can bring to the table. So I would think that community is one of the most important things that I do in my work. But I think it’s one of the most important things for people in general, regardless of age, and it’s hard, especially when we get up there and age, we isolate, we isolate. So from my big, my past, everything was always community, it was always about community exercise, community engagement. So it was just a natural progression for me to add that community building skill in such a prominent factor in my work. Yeah,

Michael Hughes 18:31
and I’m just thinking about, you know, you’ve had the opportunity to kind of do this with younger people, older people, I’m wondering, you know, if there is a through line with in all these different age groups that you see, like, I’ll give you give you an example, like we do human centered design workshops with our residents. And I we do and I’ve done the same type of workshops, where you just like sit down, you come up with ideas, you qualify the there’s lots of the yes and principle that you were talking about, you know, setting the stage and, and we have one day of just really expansive thinking around these ideas, what it’s like $1,000 grants to enhance resident life is contests. So I’ll just give them $1,000 for a good idea. So we came up with tons of great ideas on the first day. Second day, we do a lot of reductive thinking to really hone down and come up with the best ones. And the energy that I feel from people in their 80s and 90s . Hundreds of you know, doing this exercise, the creative energy seems to me to be very similar to the vibe that I get, you know, to when we do those exact same exercises with people, their 40s, their 50s, their 30s. And it’s really inspiring I think, through line when you talk about the creative energy within us, not necessarily dying, that sort of having this constant. And I’m wondering when you’re talking about creative expression when you have the opportunity to sort of see people of all ages go through the exercises and the icebreakers and things like that. Do you describe? Do you see the same consistency? Is there any variation? I mean, what do you see when you talk about what sort of through lines you see with your work? When you work with different age groups,

Kirsten Ajax 20:14
it’s really interesting, because, you know, therapy in general, for the older demographic has had really stigmatized, it’s been stigmatized for years, it’s there, we still have this concept that it’s, you know, only for schizophrenics or it’s only for the severely mentally, you know, afflicted, the reality is therapy is beneficial for all individuals, regardless of their mental health is just a beneficial thing. We have a lot of data that demonstrates how good it is for you know, your cognitive functioning for your emotional regulation for all of that. But the difference is that younger generations don’t necessarily have as much of that stigma. And it’s because we are always at the polls, we have everything at our fingertips, right, we’ve got better health online, you can just go on an app and say, I need to talk to someone, I can message you or I can call you or I can email you. Well, seniors don’t have that thought process. They don’t have that because it wasn’t promoted like it is for the younger generation. So there is a little bit of a block, right? There’s a little bucket . Oh, no, I don’t need that. That’s for these people, I don’t need that. But then once you get through that block, and it does take some time, it does take a lot of trust building. And that’s that therapeutic relationship that I work really hard on a lot of empathetic listening and building those connections and relationships to to support that trust. Once we break down that wall, that you don’t have to be severely mentally ill to use therapy as a resource as a tool. So once we break that down, be the leaps and bounds that I see my seniors make, it’s profound. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. And they tap right back in, you see that inner child come out and it just like, boom, they’re there. They know it, they didn’t lose it. It’s just gotten a little bit damp down because of life. Because of stress because of responsibilities. No, we can’t climb a tree when we’re 90. Or maybe we can be a metaphor tree. You know, maybe we can we, we don’t have to put those parameters of like, oh, no, I can’t do that. Because that will be silly. Yeah, it would be silly. But what is silly? What if that silly made you feel so good inside, that you remembered something about your childhood that made you feel that good about that moment, too. So it’s about tapping into the creativity we all have. We say a lot of times that, you know, this person is artistic or right brained, or this person’s this and they’re artistic, and they’re creative, we all have the potential to be creative, every single individual, regardless, if you’re an accountant, or you know, a CEO, we all can be creative, we don’t have to be an actor, we don’t have to be, you know, a dancer, we can be creative in our own thinking and problem solving. So I really tried to stress that with my seniors, because it does seem that with some of the younger generations, they got a little bit more of that social, emotional aspect in their education. And, you know, our seniors didn’t, they didn’t get that when they were at their, you know, very prime foundational age, which is not necessarily a deficit. But I see it as an opportunity, I see it as an opportunity to give that to them to show them that, look at what you can do. Look at what you have inside of you. So it really is not that much different. It’s just about getting past those blocks that we put

Michael Hughes 23:42
up. Yeah, and you know, what, what’s going through my mind now is that, you know, you talk about younger versus older and younger generations, you know, again, digital tools are there, the stigma is not there. And then I’m trying to think, you know, people have I think need for therapy too. You know, if I’m somebody at 25 years old, who’s seeking therapy, yeah, I’m seeking therapy, maybe for things I’m trying to work out because I may not have had the life experience to be a cushion for me to react against that experience. And to put it in context with other things that may have gone on in my life. And also the recency that maybe some of these things that are trauma informed, or what have you happened to me 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, and then you have maybe the same situation with older adults were both they have this whole life experience to kind of be reflective on that. And then they also have maybe the thing that is still causing them trauma, you know, where, you know, mental health services were not as you know, well regarded back then. But also the distance between the time of trauma and the time of therapy may be 40 5060 years, you know, and I’m just wondering if you have any more Reflections on that if if it’s still real to that, you know, it’s like, how does that How do you see these trauma events being managed with people that are maybe in their 80s versus maybe people in their 20s? Sure.

Kirsten Ajax 25:17
So when dealing with trauma, trauma is different for every individual, you know, someone can experience an event, you know, let’s say a car crash, and one person is in that car and doesn’t have anything wrong with them, they’re fine, they leave walking away with nothing. And that same person that experienced that car crash has severe trauma from it, right, maybe they develop PTSD, or C, PTSD, or maybe they just have some really difficult times from there. So it’s very individual based, you have to look at it from the client’s perspective, and what they’re going through. When we work in drama therapy, we try to really listen to our clients. And again, building those strings. So what I would do is listen, and see where there’s a choice point for me to come in, where there’s a little opening a little, you know, just open up that book and say, Hey, remember when you did that, as a kid? What does that sound like? Now? Can we go back to that person? Can we give that person a little bit of love? Can we think about how that child may need or may not have received the support that they need. And sometimes it doesn’t always work, sometimes it’s great. Sometimes we get right to it, we’re right in there. And sometimes it takes that brilliant, wonderful support of the community and the group around them to say, you got this, you can do it. And I have seen it time and time again, when someone is sitting down next to somebody and they think, Oh, this is so silly, I can’t do this, I can’t go back there. But I don’t want to do that. And someone else says, I’m doing it, let’s try it together. It’s that support network that you have, and also the perspective of someone else your age be like, I experienced that, too. Yeah, we have that universality. Look at us all, we all experienced that. So it’s really an awareness and a reflection, that they can see themselves in the eyes of others who have actually experienced the same, maybe trauma, maybe stressors, or maybe just life experiences. So I never force anyone to go back to you know, your inner child or that event that would be unethical of myself and of therapy in general. But we do a lot of narrative work, right? We do a lot of storytelling, we build our narratives about how we’re going to approach this. An example that I have is I will definitely leave out names and all scriptures. But a wonderful client that I had was dealing with a lot of physical issues, which brought up some abusive things that had happened in their past. So we looked at it as how do we get from point A to point B. And instead of just saying we’re didactically? Talking, yeah, point A to point B, here’s what you do. Now we physically embodied it, we put down on the floor, these little circles that I had, and each step was how to get from point A to point B. We want to get to point B and we want to get there in a healthy, safe and supportive manner. Maybe we didn’t get there that way, the first time we went through it. But this time we’re going to the way that we get there is by eliciting the help of the other individuals within the room. So I have other individuals come up, they stand in this particular life event spot on the floor, and they enroll and do what that person wants. So maybe they’re trying to get a disability, right? And they are really struggling and each step of the way, it’s been incredibly hard for them to get their disability. What was that first step? What did you encounter? Why was it so hard? What support did you need at that time? Get those support systems in there, and we tell that person, this is what you may have needed. And this is what you’re gonna get this time. And then we go to the next step. Right. Okay, how difficult was it for you to reach the, you know, the office to be able to get there? What were the difficulties? Was it transportation? Was it not feeling so well that day? Did you feel that you couldn’t get there? And I didn’t have support last time. Now you do. Now you have support? What do you need? Oh, you need to call friends who can give you a ride, come on over to a friend and then another participant will come over and give that support. So it’s really retraining ourselves. It’s saying I needed that. I didn’t get it. But now I can get it. And I can look at that event trauma stressor in a different way. Because now I’m building the skills to say to myself, I can ask for help. I can get what I need by eliciting all the community members around me. And I don’t have to be stuck in a trauma cycle or a trigger cycle that’s going to keep me going on the same path.

Michael Hughes 29:54
Is that because someone would notice it would sort of blame themselves for the steps it is that right? And that’s him sort of realizing that, you know, you weren’t aware of certain options. You made the bet you were doing the best for yourself at that time with what you had. It’s, I guess there’s a lot of sort of self forgiveness and self awareness. Exercise, right? Absolutely.

Kirsten Ajax 30:17
It’s about building resiliency and showing them that they already have the resiliency. And it’s just tapping back in and saying, It’s okay that this didn’t go exactly how it was supposed to go. Because now we can do it again. And it can be the way that you need it to be, was

Michael Hughes 30:31
Is there any way I can be more resilient at this age? I should have better skills at this age. I mean, you just? Is that ever coming up? Or is that just or do people just mean, these are just people going through situations like everybody does at any age, right?

Kirsten Ajax 30:44
Absolutely. Yeah, we definitely experienced that. And I know that I personally have experienced that where people question, why can I get this right? Why is it so difficult for me to achieve this? And, you know, I try to reinforce for all my clients that life’s a journey, you are going to ebb and flow, and you’re going to be at a really high peak, sometimes really low valleys, sometimes, we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, and the imperfections that we have actually make us a more richer, unique individual for our community. So one pitfall you may have experienced may help someone else in the room, it may help someone else. See that, wow, I have that resiliency inside of me, I didn’t think that I did, but I just helped them get through that I can do that for myself. So it’s a lot of reflection, it’s a lot of looking at ourselves as more capable than we really are. You know, we, especially as we age, get stuck in patterns, we get stuck in, you know, the mundane things that bombard us and, you know, weigh us down. And in drama therapy, we get to shut it off, at least for an hour and a half, we can shut it off. And in the confines of that room, anything goes, anything can go and the support that we can have builds that resiliency, reawakens the tools and techniques that we once thought we had, and then we lost, it mobilizes people to be better for each other. And that’s really important to me as a practitioner, but it’s important to all people to see that we have those. We have those abilities inside of ourselves.

Michael Hughes 32:22
It strikes me that Kirsten is when you’re talking about community, you’re talking about everyone, you know, you’re identifying people’s individual gifts, so to speak, their experiences, their skills, you’re highlighting them and sort of allowing the community to foster and grow within your therapy environment. And it strikes me that you know, has if we’re talking about people that are older, in general, we’re talking about a group that may be at risk for this feeling of loss of identity, that I am now more physically limited and going from being independent to more dependent that I am, you know, I had a career I was raising my family now I’m in this position, you know, and I may have to leave my home for a new community and am I going to lose my identity? Is that a theme that you see coming up with the people that are in your programs? And what might you do to maybe restore that sense of identity?

Kirsten Ajax 33:16
Yeah, absolutely. So it is a very common theme, we experienced that a lot. So honoring each individual, right. It’s something that and very much for the senior generation is there was not that much of that going on, we really didn’t have a moment to shine in that kind of way. Because you know, it was so collected, it was so up and down and rocky within our history, we look at it how many times we have been displaced from war from, you know, upheaval in our country. So there wasn’t really a moment in time in our history where the seniors could say, hey, it’s all about me. It’s all about me right now. This is my identity. It’s all about me. So there is some of that reinventing, and then looking into it. And then, you know, honoring, witnessing and respecting the path that they’ve chosen. You were a doctor, and you are a really great doctor. And now you still have those skills. You may not be in practice anymore. But now we’re going to use those skills and how we can use them in a different way to benefit you and benefit your community at the current moment. So it’s not taking someone’s identity and saying, Well, now you’re a senior and that’s all you have. That’s it. Right? Right. Right. It’s empowering them. It’s showing them that their resiliency is so much stronger than they believe. And that the skills that they gained from being a MariaDB things of being a mother, being a writer, being, you know, a nurse, whatever they were in their life, it’s still beneficial to this day, and it’s about also training, teaching and psycho education of the facility workers as well. Oh, yes, very important, we have to maintain that just because a therapist or a counselor does this within the therapy session, it has to continue and as to continue within the environment that they live in. And that’s a big factor that I try really hard to push with all environments that I go to, if we’re going to, you know, walk the walk, preach the talk, then we have to support that from the underlying Foundation. And that means that if seniors ask questions, we’re not going to reprimand them, we’re not going to say, Today is not the time for you to ask those questions, not what we’re doing. You know, it may be Yeah, I have that question too. Why don’t we seek that information out? It’s about empowering them. It’s about seeing them for who they are, and the wisdom that they give us. They give us so many stories, and they give us so many life experiences. I’ll never know what it’s like to, you know, experience some of the things that these individuals had never known, I wasn’t born. How could I ever experience that? So it’s really honoring them. And I think that’s for all people, we need to honor them and respect and witness and really validate their existence. So we’re not changing. We’re not saying that you can still be in this profession. We’re being honest. We’re saying that was something that you did do. And you were great at it. And it’s so part of your personality. It’s part of your lifeforce. What can you take from that experience, for now in your world and in your community to benefit you and the community? Because I’ve worked with some amazing ex teachers. And there is just this thing that we get, as a teacher that I was, we know, we have these little things that I’m like, you’re a teacher, aren’t you? And then like I was, I was like, oh, because there’s these little things that we know, the way that you put your pens or the way that you stack your papers. You know, it’s just these little nuances. And then once you get past that barrier that you may have, and it opens up and they’re like, let me tell you about this story. Want to tell you about this child that I had? Oh, how did you help them? Oh, well, we worked so hard on their spelling and their math. And, you know, I created this pneumonic device for them. And it helped. It was like, how can you apply that today? Could you help someone with that today? And oh, no, I add that as my old life, I don’t do that. But do you? Do you help your community right here in this room, you’re helping organize the books in the library to make it more efficient for all the you know, different residents to view, that is a skill that you have. So it’s really about honoring, witnessing, validating and appreciating all that they can offer.

Michael Hughes 37:47
And you know, and that’s tremendous. And you said something before about, you know, obviously the people that work in facilities. And you also mentioned earlier that you are starting to work with kind of like that caregiver care recipient. The fancy term is dyad. But it was the pairings. So I think this is probably the last question that I wanted to ask you about the drama theater. Before we move on to the three questions we always ask our guests. But what is fascinating to you, I mean, what are you noticing about therapy when you do get caregivers and care recipients together? What does that fabric look like?

Kirsten Ajax 38:25
Oh, it’s beautiful. We’re not going to get emotional because we’re not supposed to. But it’s so beautiful. I worked with a husband and wife. And they really were lacking in communication. And they were very strong in their marriage . Their whole lives really put forth a lot to their marriage, but there was a communication breakdown. And this caregiver is like, you know, a prizefighter, she’s in that corner, ready to go anytime. But my other client wasn’t being heard, because his emotion wasn’t being validated if he felt scared or worried about the future, and how he couldn’t give what he wanted to his wife. But she would just like, Nope, we’re going to do this, just keep moving forward, everything’s fine. And it broke communication down completely, where they were just kind of walking these two separate paths in life. We got into the therapy room. And we really started to break it down and say, Hey, are we listening to each other? Are we really validating our emotions? Yes, you know, modus operandi might be to go right to fixing that situation. But maybe he doesn’t need that right now. Maybe what he needs is for you to just hear him and see that he may be a little scared about the future. And when we have that moment, and this is just one example. But when that moment happened, I mean, it was beautiful. It was beautiful to see a senior couple be able to say, Wow, this is so important. Where did we lose this? We just got it back. No, we just got back. And there it is. And it was that aha moment that all therapists are like, there it is. It’s that beautiful moment where you are reaching, you know, your therapeutic goals, you’re reaching your treatment goals, and you’re seeing it in fruition, you’re seeing it happen in front of your face. So a personal belief that all people have the ability to have that therapeutic catharsis where they can have that moment and say, I just had that. And it really impacted me, and I can change for the better now.

Michael Hughes 40:31
i What terrific, I mean, and for you to be an enabler of that must be so satisfying for you, and must be just such a terrific driver to get used to the next day. And the next day, the next day, as you continue to evolve your practice. I mean, goodness, you’re doing all this and you’re still, you know, both a teacher and a student. And, you know, I think that it would do everyone, well, we got to reconnect, you know, once you kind of get more into your practice, and you discover more things to figure out more of these really cool, interesting tips and tricks and modalities, you’re learning around engaging older adults. So thank you so much. But you’re not off the hook yet. Now, there are three questions, or three questions we’d like to ask every guest on the show about their own experience with aging. And would you mind if I ask those questions of you? Of course, please. All right. So Kiersten Question number one, when you think about how you view you, yourself have aged, what do you think has changed about you or grown with you, that you really like about yourself,

Kirsten Ajax 41:31
I really believe that I don’t have to be sorry anymore, that I don’t have to feel guilty. And when that guilt comes up, I can see it, identify it, and say, Now, I’m who I am. And I’m here for a reason. And I have something to say. So when we’re growing up, and when we’re, you know, trying to figure out who we are, you know, especially as a woman, there’s a lot of guilt associated with this, where we go with our lives, and, Oh, should I do this? Should I not do that? I don’t care anymore. I am who I am, you’re going to like me, you’re not going to like me, and that’s okay. Because I really don’t need the validation of someone who doesn’t want to be around me and doesn’t, you know, support me. So it really is letting go of that guilt and really respecting who I am. And honoring the fact that I bring a lot to the table, and not questioning it so much just saying yes. And right. It’s the Yes. Exactly. And oh, man, that’s

Michael Hughes 42:36
a wonderful perspective. Alright, question number two, though, what has surprised you the most about you, as you’ve aged?

Kirsten Ajax 42:46
Yeah, so I was thinking about this. It’s hard because I used to care so much about others, and how they affected me. But I realized that people will change and some people will change. And so it was hard to realize that, you know, I may be changing for the better, but other people may be staying the same. So I guess that’s kind of, it’s hard, but letting go of some of those relationships, or maybe they change, and you have to honor that. That is how relationships are going to be. It’s difficult. It’s not easy, because, you know, you have this thought in your mind that your best friend since third grade will be there forever. But sometimes it’s healthy to let that go. And say they’re a different person. They’re doing their own thing. They’re doing great. And now I’m this person. And I need to keep on this path, because it’s doing great for me. So relationships, recognizing when to let them go, when to hold on to them. Yeah, that’s been a big one. That’s awesome.

Michael Hughes 43:50
Thank you so much for sharing that. And now for our third question. And final question. So Kirsten Is there someone that you’ve met or been in your life that has really set a good example for you in aging, you know, it’s like, you know, I want to be like them when I grow up. You know, is it just anybody that comes to mind? Absolutely.

Kirsten Ajax 44:08
There’s this amazing woman, her name is Helen. And I worked with her at the Jewish Community Center in Denver. When I was teaching water aerobics, she was an inspiration. She was a Spitfire, she was just so ready to take the world on at any moment. She would come every single day to my water aerobics class, and she’d be right in front of me right in front row every time. And she was a very little lady, just very little, and she could just tell inside of her that she had so much life and so much gusto. I think she was like 83 when I knew her, she was part of the Freedom Riders in the civil rights movement, and she holds. Yeah, so she helped a lot of individuals at that time and she had championed, you know, equality and equity even back in the 50s. Isn’t 40 Like she was there she was on the frontline helping people and engaging with people. And I looked back, and I think that’s yeah, that’s exactly who I want to be, I never want to stop learning, I never want to stop being active. And I never want to stop caring about doing good for others. And she didn’t, she always did. There was this one time where I needed a card table for something. And I asked, my water rose group was like, Sandy would have a card table right away, she’s like, I have to, you’re gonna come over tonight, and I’m gonna give you both of them, and you can keep them for as long as you need. And it was just so matter of fact, I’m gonna help you, I have this resource, I can provide it, no worries. And that consistent, giving, and loving and caring of others. It’s simple. I always want to have, I always want that for myself, because it made her a beautiful person. And I want to be that when I get older.

Michael Hughes 45:50
That is such I mean, what a great barometer for you and a great example for us. This is abundant aging. This is abundant aging. And thank you for bringing that to life for us, Kiersten and thank you for sharing, you know, your knowledge, your gifts, your talents, just really describing this world of drama therapy that is only going to get more and more popular is only going to get more needed, as all of us age, right. And as we start moving through the different generations and the different different generations, I guess reactions to therapies. And so there’s a bright future ahead, I think, for you. And for that, you know, this world. So thank you. But most of all, thank you to our listeners. Thank you listeners for tuning in. And giving your time and listening to this episode of The Art of aging, which is part of the abundant aging podcast series from United Church homes. And we want to hear from you how has your perspective on aging changed as you yourself have aged? You know, what do you think of today’s topic? You know how, please see drama therapy being beneficial for you and those that you care for and love. Talk to us, communicate with us on an abundant aging podcast.com Please share your ideas. And you can also give us feedback when you visit the Ruth Ross Parker Center at UnitedChurchHomes.com/Parker-center. You can find these other podcasts at abundant aging podcast.com or on YouTube by searching under United Church Homes. And most importantly, Kiersten, where can people find you? You can

Kirsten Ajax 47:20
find me on LinkedIn. You can also find me on Facebook, and then I’m also associated with the NAD students representative. And then I’m also part of the Kansas Counseling Association so you can find me through that.

Michael Hughes 47:32
Alright. Tune in for more episodes when we have them. Thank you again. We’ll see you next time.