Worldwide the older population increased by 0.4% between 1996 and 2001 alone, which currently amounts to 5 487 679 of the total South African population (approximately 51 million) (Statistics South Africa, 2013:2). With a percentage of 16.2%, Gauteng‟s older person population is arguably at the top end of the scale. Based on figures by the Department of Social Development, 13.7% of the population will be 60 years and older by 2050; thus an increase from the current 5.7% to 14.9% is expected. This could contribute to an increased need for the emotional support of older persons by social workers. Although some research has been conducted on creative Gestalt play techniques in groups for the aged dealing with physical health and reduced personal contact (O'Leary, Sheedy, O'Sullivan & Thoresen, 2003; Serok, 1986), little is known about their responses to creative Gestalt play techniques utilised on an individual level.
Therefore, it was the goal of this study to explore the experiences of older persons communicating through creative Gestalt play techniques. Within the context of this study, creative Gestalt play techniques refer specifically to drawing, clay and sand play. In order to achieve this research goal, a qualitative approach was adopted to explore the experience an older person may have when communicating through Gestalt play techniques.
Applied research was considered the most suitable as the research findings emanating from this study could be used to propose practical guidelines for gerontological social work services. The collective case study was employed as the research design. The researcher recruited five (n=5) participants through two non-probability sampling techniques, namely purposive sampling followed by volunteer sampling from a residential facility in the Tshwane Metropolitan area. After five Gestalt play sessions with each older person, the data were collected during the sixth session by means of semi-structured interviews, guided by an interview schedule. Creswell‟s process for thematic data analysis was used to extrapolate themes and subthemes. The trustworthiness of the data interpretation was confirmed through reflexivity, peer debriefing and an audit trail.
The key findings of this study were that older persons experienced communicating through Gestalt play techniques positively as it was found that: (1) The techniques were spontaneous and mastery was experienced through the techniques; it was an appropriate way of communicating and it assisted the older persons to recall life events and memories from their past; some experienced uncertainty and anxiety during implementation of the technique. (2) The relationship an older person had with the researcher enhanced their experience of communicating through Gestalt play techniques. The projection techniques enabled the researcher to relate to the older person in the “here and now” and as such, it promoted a positive relationship between the researcher and the older person and also promoted communication. (3) The older persons also had specific experiences regarding the techniques that were implemented; they experienced the techniques to be cognitively stimulating, to enable fantasizing; techniques were simple and easy to apply and had a calming effect. To improve service rendering to the older population and implementing Gestalt play techniques with older persons, the following recommendations are offered to social workers: to first build a trusting professional relationship with the older person as a positive relationship will let them feel that their stories and memories are important to the researcher; to provide an opportunity for older persons to be spontaneous, which furthermore could assist them to become aware of the “here and now”; to focus on techniques that will allow older persons to experience mastery during the implementation of the technique; to ensure that older persons have a positive attitude towards implementing the specific technique; to use materials that an older person could easily work with, despite the challenges they face as a consequence of old age; to be aware that the play techniques enable older persons to work through issues in their past, which surface during the sessions; to meet the older persons‟ preferences as they may not feel comfortable with all the different creative Gestalt play techniques; to introduce social workers to Gestalt play techniques while working with older persons in order to render successful services; and to train social workers in implementing Oaklander‟s „working model‟.