Elderhood and The Arts:

In the United States and elsewhere, we are being challenged to develop a whole new phase of life called “elderhood.” Today, millions of people can expect to live 25 or more years in relatively good health after retirement. We must shape elderhood in ways beneficial to both the individual and community, in order to promote intergenerational relationships, understanding and support (Bianchi, 2005). Recent research suggests exciting possibilities for the therapeutic use of art to support the health and well-being of older adults. More research needs to be conducted to use arts practices to nurture quality of life of older adults. This project addresses this research gap while developing new technologies.


Life review:

Long-term care facilities conduct regular life review sessions to strengthen self worth, identity, communication, and intergenerational sharing. Life review, sometimes called reminiscence therapy, includes aspects of oral history and autobiography. Life review is described as “a systematic, chronological review of one’s entire life from early memories through the present and involves evaluation of the meaning of life experiences” (Leupker, 2010; see also Gibson, 2004; Haber, 2006; Woods et al., 2005).

Reminiscing serves several functions for older adults including: promoting self-understanding, preserving personal and collective history, transcending the material world and physical limitations, and reinforcing coping mechanisms. Literature shows that life review has significant effects on late life depression and can work as an alternative to psychotherapy (Bohlmeijer and Filip, 2003). Life review has been shown to improve relationships between caregivers and seniors, increase staff knowledge of the client’s backgrounds and history, and develop understanding of one’s sense of self (Scogin, at al., 1994). The VoicingElder project strives to increase Quality of Life (QOL) for the seniors, through such life review processes. Videotaped life review actively involves family members with the senior’s life review process, promoting intergenerational knowledge. Younger generations benefit from reviewing documentation of an older adult’s life moments and life lessons as a tool for learning, and understanding their family and cultural roots. Research has demonstrated that younger generations report regret when they had no recorded memories of their parents before their death (Leupker, (2010). Therefore, videotaped life review is an important part of preserving family legacy.


Virtual Puppetry:

Puppetry has usually been associated with entertainment and children’s activities in the United States. However, puppets have been used for many rituals in eastern cultures such as Indonesian shadow puppetry and Korean shaman ritual. In her article “Redefining Puppet: Paradoxical Relationship Between Subject and Object” Ryu defines a puppet as a ritual object that brings about a trance state of consciousness for the puppeteer, resulting in a performance of great excitement, public engagement, and reflection of community (Ryu, 2009), This ritual context is naturally connected with the therapeutic possibility of puppetry in exploring the dynamic transformative consciousness happening to the puppeteer. Ryu states the transformative relationship between puppet and puppeteer as “spiraling phases” in her article “Ritualizing Interactive Media, from motivation to activation.” Ryu has defined the ‘spiraling phases’ between virtual puppet and puppeteer as follows: 1. Inter-coexistence: There are no other relationships other than coexistence in space and time. Clear separation. 2. Inter-action: There is physical relationship, 3. Inter-dependence: By increased interactions, interdependence is also increased and helps create harmony and cooperation, and 4. Inter-penetration: This is the most dynamic, creative and transformative relationship, which brings forth the ultimate state of playfulness. Virtual puppet and puppeteer inter-penetrate into each other and exchange their position.

Ryu has investigated virtual puppetry for 12 years, with special attention to the relationship between the user and the virtual body. The continuous development of the puppeteer’s emotional psyche is a key aspect for virtual puppetry, providing therapeutic potential (Crying With the Virtual, Virtual Puppet, My Love Impossible; Searching for Love Impossible; & Sensing without Sensing). The process of becoming a virtual puppet demonstrates the continuous emotional development and perceptual changes of body and mind over time. It provides a platform for understanding the potential of digital bodies in virtual space. Ryu has explained the emotional flow of the virtual body through the perspective of Korean experiential reality as a meta layer of experiential reality in which the human body transforms from physical to virtual. This suggests the therapeutic model of puppetry. Bernier states “therapeutic puppetry is the use of puppets to aid physical or emotional healing and can include puppet making, puppet play, interaction between puppet characters and observation of, and reflection on, puppet shows” (Bernier, 2005). Ryu describes the puppeteer’s experience with virtual puppets in oral storytelling platform as follows: “Speech through the virtual puppet’s mouth is unexpected. It is an unexpected hybrid created between their puppet and themselves.” In this way, the puppeteer learns to tell stories through the puppet: the puppeteer and puppet tell stories together. This was demonstrated from the public’s storytelling improvisation through the virtual puppet, ETH, Zurich, 2003: “… the puppet could tell the story. Puppet could tell him how to tell stories. So the big man and the puppet could tell the stories together. And this is how the big man learned to tell the stories… ”

Virtual puppetry allows the puppeteer to speak and reveal their hidden emotions and stories in an oral storytelling platform. It is a journey of discovering lost selves. The concept of lost selves is particularly apt to describe the older adult population. The aging psyche must grapple with a huge distance between the true self and the socially constructed self (how others perceive them), between the lived body and the biological body, and between the ageless body and the aging body (Fairhurst, 1998; Faircloth, 2003). The senior’s perception of their own body, and their questioning of identity, has the potential to bring forth a dynamic transformation by using the alternative bodies available in virtual puppetry. With the popularity of mainstream video games, many people understand the provocative power that exists with a virtual body (virtual puppets or avatars). Although researchers have been investigating “avatar therapy” for nearly ten years, there has not been in-depth discussion and research about emotional and psychic state of the user working with avatars.  VoicingElder bridges this gap in “avatar therapy” by connecting therapeutic puppetry to gerontological life review research to promote emotional development through interactive media.