Actors portray conflicts involving families with seniors

Looking for something different to write about, I decided to attend an event June 26 at the Bain Center, in Columbia, sponsored by Karen Hull, the mental health coordinator for the Howard County Department on Aging. The Mental Health Players' performance "Keys on the Road to Better Aging" highlighted conflicts between individuals and used a narrator to facilitate audience responses.

The volunteer actors, part of the Mental Health Association of Maryland, have provided presentations to audiences for over 20 years.

The first scene found Norma, who suffered from arthritis, discussing her medical concerns with her doctor. It was very obvious from the start that the doctor was too hurried and wasn't listening to his patient. He kept asking her the same questions over again, even though she had already provided the answers. The doctor had given her injections, which had not helped.

The doctor said that the injections usually worked well with folks her age. Mistake! She said to him, "So you think I am old?" Norma continues to ache all over and told the doctor about new health developments — sleeplessness, lack of appetite and irritability. The doctor said that these are problems of  "older" people.

During the follow-up discussion, one audience member told Norma to find a new doctor because he is not listening to her. Other comments aimed at the doctor were that he was too focused on the arthritis and was harming her by not treating her as a whole person. Another suggestion to Norma was to join a senior center, get to know people with arthritis and learn how they deal with it.

In scenario two, Pearl called her daughter, Terry, with an emergency, which wasn't really an emergency. The daughter arrived in a harried condition, stopping on her way to work. Her mother expected her to stay to help take care of the items on her list. Terry brought a number of things her mother had been asking for — blouse, slippers, nuts, etc. Her mother complained about each item. Terry took a call from her son and afterward her mother complained that he was Terry's number one priority.

Consensus from the audience was that Terry was in an extremely stressed state because she was torn between her mother, son and work. The very demanding and lonely mother was advised to reach out to friends at church for socialization and to get out more. The mother needs to change her demanding ways because she is a major cause of Terry's stress. Terry was told that she needed to find time for herself and learn to say no. Everyone agreed that Terry was going to burn out if she kept up this pace.

The third vignette involved two sisters, Jill and Lisa, discussing their dad. Jill was trying to get across to Lisa that she couldn't keep up the daily care she was giving their father; that they needed to put him in assisted living. The father's balance is getting worse and he is showing signs of dementia. Lisa was not paying full attention to Jill; she was too busy looking at her cell phone. Lisa wouldn't hear of assisted living because they had promised their mother that they would take care of the father. Lisa railed about how she was there to help last month but that she travels a lot. Lisa thinks Jill makes a big deal out of taking care of dad and suggested he move in with Jill.

One of the audience participants suggested that a contract be drawn up, stipulating what each sister's responsibilities will be in the care of dad. All agreed that Lisa didn't seem to have a care in the world and that she would get someone to do her part. Audience members also agreed that assisted living was the best choice for dad.

In all three scenarios, it was decided that a support group would help; that caregiving is no easy task.

Many attendees agreed that the role-playing/interactive format was conducive to getting people to talk about mental health issues. Karen Hull said, " This is one of the few times we can present mental health issues palatable to audiences in a softer format."

John Harris, of Columbia, a retiree from GE Health Care, expressed interest in becoming an actor with the Mental Health Players and later talked to the leader about the possibility. An active participant in the feedback, John told me that he found the session interesting.

Group leader and narrator Diane Megargel said, "This group [audience] was very insightful and caught on quickly."

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