7 Feb 2024

Dan Colley on dementia, connection and his play Lost Lear

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 7 February 2024

To connect with a parent who has dementia, adult children are forced to 'grow up and play along', says Irish playwright Dan Colley.

An innovative approach to dementia care based on shared play was his inspiration for Lost Lear which will be onstage in Wellington next month.

Dan Colley (left) is the playwright behind Lost Lear, which is coming to the stage as part of the Aotearoa Festival of the Arts.

Photo: Supplied

Lost Lear is part of the Aotearoa Festival of the Arts. Another of Colley's plays A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings will be performed at the Auckland Arts Festival in March.

At his grandmother's dementia care home, which was kitted out with a 1940s Ireland streetscape that resembled a film set, Colley first came across the SPECAL method.

"[It's] is about going with the reality of the person who has dementia rather than trying to correct them to the reality that they don't know that they're in," he tells Kathryn Ryan.

All of us live in "fictional bubbles", Colley says, and the idea of entering into that of another person can give insight into the experience of dementia and dementia care.

He learned about the SPECAL method of interacting with those who have the condition from the Contented Dementia Trust and their book Contented Dementia. 

"You're told don't ask questions, you're told to sort of play ping-pong and keep the conversation going and you're told not to contradict the person. And through that method you try and find out where they want to be, and you meet them there.

"The people who advocate for it say all kinds of great things happen then. They say often you can keep people at home and out of professional or residential care for longer and you need less medication and that kind of thing.

"These are the claims that they make, and it may well be true. But you know, not everybody goes with this and not everybody recommends this as a method either. It seems to work for some people and not for others.

"From who I spoke to people who have cared for people with dementia, people living with dementia, it seems like everybody's journey through it is very different and there isn't a right way to do it. And I suppose by that logic, there is no wrong way to do it."

Writing Lost Lear also gave Colley a good opportunity to "attack good old Shakespeare in a new way". His favourite part of King Lear is the conflict between Lear and his daughters over his inheritance.

"I just thought that's a story that gets told over and over again, isn't it, it's about people hurting who love each other, hurting each other and then having to find a way back from us in one way or another.

"It's made much more complicated sometimes when a disease like dementia is involved because you have to find a connection with the person at the level that they are at."

Lost Lear is told from the point of view of Joy, a person with dementia, who is living in an old memory of rehearsing King Lear.

Joy's son Connor, who she's been estranged from for a long time, comes to visit with some unfinished business.

"He comes in, he arrives and finds her in a completely different reality and being supported by her carers who are encouraging her to believe that she's in a rehearsal of King Lear from back in the old days, and he has to find a way in, but he's not very good at it.

"He finds her in a very different state to when he last saw her, she is fully immersed in this comforting past fiction ... this comforting memory."

Connor is instructed by his mother's carers to perform the role of Cordelia in the play, which is deeply uncomfortable for him.

"This marvellous bright, brilliant diva of an actor eviscerates him without really recognising who he is, sort of thinking of him as the understudy ... he has to try and find a way in through this method.

"He is probably somebody who has a job and got on and had kids himself and that by the time he came around to having kids himself thought 'hang on, that was really awful what happened to me as a child, that was not a good situation'."

Many people don't seek out an opportunity to more deeply connect with a parent until it's too late, Colley says, and this is made that much more complicated by dementia.

One woman he spoke to, who'd cared for her mother via the SPECAL method told him the only approach is to 'grow up and play along'.

"[She said] 'That's the disease. The other person is the person with the disease and there's nothing that you can do about that. So this is the situation you're in, you might as well make the best of it'.

"I thought, wow, that is deeply harsh but very wise."

The tension between the two phrases 'grow up' and 'play along' is revealing, he says.

"I've seen people who just felt too uncomfortable doing what they felt was babying their mother or their father or their loved one. They felt too much of that residual… indeed, it is respect, of course, but it's I guess they couldn't grow up to play along."