How to Meaningfully Reconnect with Someone Who Has Dementia

Thirty years ago, Dr. Anne Basting, a gerontologist and a professor, had an experience that would change her life forever. Dr. Basting, who currently teaches theater at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was researching aging and memory for her PhD, and she felt she genuinely connected with a room of seniors who suffered from dementia.

At that time, Dr. Basting volunteered in a nursing home and she remembers trying to get the roomful of residents to do memory exercises, without much luck. She decided to try something different, hoping it would work. She tore a photograph of the Marlboro man out of a magazine and asked the residents to give him a name. They called him Fred, and somehow Fred morphed into Fred Astaire, and the group ended up making up a story about Fred Astaire, laughing and singing and giving voice to their imaginations and idled memories.

Dr. Basting returned week after week to the nursing home and ran the same exercise using different pictures. Each time, she got the same enthusiastic responses. She felt that she was on to something. In this video, Dr. Basting describes this experience and the reactions she received. Over the next couple of years, she received several grants to replicate the storytelling process at four adult day centers, two in New York and two in the Milwaukee, WI area, and her program has gown in leaps and bounds since then.

For decades, Dr. Basting has been on a journey of inviting patients with cognitive disabilities into creative expression through what she calls “TimeSlips” workshops. Using creative expression, Dr. Basting feels she can help people with dementia “shift away from the expectation of memory and move toward the freedom of imagination.”

Creative Storytelling is Invaluable for People with Dementia

In the last few years, Dr. Basting has taken her simple idea to new heights. Using visual prompts to elicit creative imaginings, she has helped people with dementia collectively tell stories, write plays and poetry, and stage performances in numerous care centers and arts venues. Ultimately, her goal was to find more humane and interactive ways to care for people with dementia, with the promise of one day reducing the use of now-abundantly prescribed antipsychotic medications.

For her work, Dr. Basting was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, often called a “genius grant,” with a $625,000 prize. Dr. Basting has since established the Student Artists in Residence program, or SAIR, at the University of Wisconsin as a service-learning component to the arts courses she teaches. Trained students in her program lead TimeSlips storytelling workshops each semester at local care communities. TimeSlips, now a registered nonprofit, offers manuals and online training through its website. Joan Williamson, TimeSlips coordinator and master trainer, says it has trained more than 2,000 facilitators in 47 states and 18 countries.

Dr. Basting recently did a TedTalk on her work. Click here to learn more and to watch it.

Tips from Dr. Basting — When a Senior Can’t Remember the Story, Let Them Make It Up

Reminiscence exercises are common in many adult day centers and senior housing facilities. A person with dementia may be presented with an object or photo from their past, and then asked to describe the memories and situations associated with that object or image. While these exercises can be helpful for certain seniors, some experts feel that they may do more harm than good. Dr. Basting is one of those experts, who believes that traditional reminiscence exercises don’t have much of an impact on people suffering from dementia.

Dr. Basting feels that trying to help a person dealing with memory loss to repair their damaged powers of recognition may backfire and, “create a sense of failure and lead the person with dementia to shut down their communication.” A method that works well for her is showing seniors with dementia creativity-boosting images of people and animals, and then having them make up stories about what is going on in the photos. “People with dementia can express themselves quite beautifully through imagination,” she says.

According to Basting, seniors in pretty much every stage of dementia have responded positively to these storytelling sessions, as long as they are still capable of some form of communication. But, people in the earlier phases of dementia will be more invested in recalling actual memories from their past.

How You Can Do Creative Storytelling Exercises with Your Loved One with Dementia

Not everyone will have access to a care center that conducts creative storytelling workshops, but caregivers and their loved ones can use the same techniques in their own homes.

Here are a few tips to help you organize an at-home storytelling session:

  • Pick a thought-provoking photo: According to Dr. Basting, the best photos are ones that appear to have a story behind them. Family photographs should be avoided because the reality of these images and the familiarity of the people in them can inhibit a senior’s creativity.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Examples include: “What do you want to call her?” or “Where do you want to say this takes place?” or “What sounds do you hear in the picture?”
  • Accept (echo and validate) all responses: This is key, says Dr. Basting. Even if the response is an unintelligible sound, gesture, or phrase.
  • Retell the story and write down all responses: This will help your loved one focus and maintain the thread of the narrative, and prevent their enthusiasm for the activity from waning. Your loved one may also derive pleasure from hearing their contributions read aloud—even if they don’t always make sense. Dr. Basting urges caregivers to try and resist making corrections to the narrative as they re-tell it. And, it also helps to throw away the idea that a story must have a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Thank them: In group storytelling sessions, each participant is thanked. This practice shouldn’t stop just because it’s just you and your loved one. Dr. Basting says that you should be sure to thank them for their contribution to the tale because the energy and courage they exhibited by being creative needs to be acknowledged.
  • Have fun and share: According to Dr. Basting, the concept of ‘the more the merrier’ definitely applies to creative storytelling. The TimeSlips website allows you to post and share your loved one’s stories, and invite other friends and family members to contribute. The site also contains information on how to find a facility that conducts TimeSlips workshops in your area.

By giving seniors with dementia the opportunity to write new narratives, Dr. Basting feels that creative storytelling may help give back a bit of what the disease steals from them. “They are allowed to be creators of something. They gain trust again in their ability to communicate, to make meaning,” she says.

Do You Have a Loved One with Dementia? — The Time to Plan is Now!

Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. If you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia, please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation. During these difficult times, we offer phone appointments, video conference appointments, and curbside signings (but we are still physically open for in-person meetings and signings for those who desire it, of course with appropriate distancing and everybody wearing appropriate face coverings):

Elder Care Planning Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Care Planning Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Care Planning Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Care Planning DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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