Anne Basting, left. (Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Anne Basting’s work to improve older adults’ quality of life and change perceptions related to aging and dementia recently received a big boost in the form of a $625,000 stipend that came with her being named one of 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2016. The stipend, often referred to as a “genius grant,” comes without strings attached.

“While our communities, our nation and our world face both historic and emerging challenges, these 23 extraordinary individuals give us ample reason for hope,” Julia Stasch, president of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, said in announcing this year’s awardees on Sept. 22. “They are breaking new ground in areas of public concern, in the arts and in the sciences, often in unexpected ways. Their creativity, dedication and impact inspire us all.”

Basting, a Ph.D. professor of theater in the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said she began developing an improvisational storytelling method she calls TimeSlips after her reminiscence-based approach didn’t seem to generate much response over the six weeks she spent volunteering with older adults who had Alzheimer’s disease.

“I tore a picture of the Malboro Man out of a magazine and just said, ‘Tell me what you want to call this guy.’ And someone said, ‘Fred.’ And I said, ‘Fred who?’ and they said, ‘Fred Astaire,’ ” she recalled in a video released by the MacArthur Foundation. “And then a 45-minute story unraveled, and we were laughing and singing, and it was a completely transformative moment. It felt like a miracle.”

That was 1998. Two years later, Basting used a collection of poems by the residents of continuing care retirement / life plan community Luther Manor in Wauwatosa, WI, to create and stage a theatrical piece with them. She then refined and transformed TimeSlips into a formal therapy protocol guided by the belief that devising new stories can be an enriching substitute for lost memories.

Basting subsequently conceived with elder collaborators several theatrical pieces that have encouraged community engagement, promoted intergenerational interactions and raised awareness around elder safety, according to the foundation. “Ultimately, it’s an effort to reduce stigma and ease isolation and loneliness,” she said.

The MacArthur Foundation credits Basting’s work with changing the perceptions that caregivers, family members and policymakers have about the artistic and creative capabilities of older adults, regardless of their age or cognitive status.

The nonprofit of which she is president, TimeSlips Creative Storytelling, offers online and in-person training programs related to her method, which has been implemented by senior living and long-term care facilities and caregivers around the world, according to the foundation.

“The beauty of the approach is that you can teach it to absolutely anyone,” Bastings said. “Housekeeping can use it. The nutritional people can use it. The family caregiver can use it. The neighbor can use it.”

Now that she has been named a MacArthur Fellow, Bastings said she is emboldened to think “10 times bigger” about the future than she would have otherwise.

“Receiving this award means the world to me,” she said. “I’ve chosen a really unconventional path of working with older adults and of committing my career to this. It’s a vote of confidence that that wasn’t a crazy thing to do, that this unconventional journey is recognized and valued.”

Watch the MacArthur Foundation video below.