Changing perceptions of aging through art

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Anne Basting
Anne Basting

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. McKnight's Senior Living Senior Editor Lois A. Bowers recently spoke with the Ph.D. and professor of theater at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee about her future plans.

Q: How did you first decide to volunteer with older adults who had Alzheimer's?

A: I've been a fiction writer for a long time, and when I turned to playwriting, I wrote older characters. That was when I started having resistance. There was no audience for a play about four women in their 90s in a nursing home, nor were there actors. So I wrote. My dissertation on the social performance of aging, looking at senior theater groups all over the country, and later turned it into a book. I found that performance could change the way we think about aging by enabling people to take new roles in late life, but almost all the representations I had looked at were healthy older adults. I wanted to see if that premise held water when you were working with profound disabilities. 

Q: How did TimeSlips Creative Storytelling, which offers online and in-person training programs in improvisational storytelling for senior care facilities and caregivers, get started?

A: Most of the techniques at the time were oriented toward repairing memory via reminiscence theory and enabling people to remember by having residents retell the story of who they are. I found that just did not work in the nursing home where I was volunteering. I shifted toward, “Let's make it up.” Inevitably, who we are comes out in those moments. Memories come out. Residents can experiment with language — whatever sounds or movements they have can contribute to it. It's really a place where people can open up their communication again after sort of self-editing or being shamed into silence. The Penelope Project is a great example. We worked with an entire continuing care retirement community — residents, family members, staff and volunteers — and partnered with a professional theater company. We used “The Odyssey” as a prompt, and we broke it into workshops — poetry, story-writing, dance, visual art, weaving, absolutely everything. It culminated in a professionally produced and performed play that was specifically staged for an outside, paying audience. You're creating the care community as a cultural center rather than a stigmatized medical center.

Q: Do you know what you plan to do with the MacArthur stipend yet?

A: It'll support mostly my time. With so many potential initiatives, even ones we've already piloted but now can go to scale, having time to spend on them will be amazing. We're also renovating our website a little bit as well, so I can imagine working on that, too. I'll keep teaching because I think it's really important to engage students in this work. It'll be a valuable skill set for them to have and also will help change the field. We're educating the students, but we're also educating the field of aging care to say, “You should hire therapists, but you should also hire artists to come in and do these community-building projects. It can completely change the way your community sees itself.”

Q: What's next for you?

A: TimeSlips has a contract from the state of Wisconsin to do 15 nursing home trainings. We made a 60-page prompt guide specially for those care communities. We received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to gather up all their creative output and then we'll partner with Wisconsin Public Radio to create radio pieces to let people hear the creative strength of people in nursing homes across the state.

We're in the recruitment phase. We'll send folks out through the state to model it, and most of the rest will be done online at the convenience of the staffing, whose time is very precious.

One of the big projects that I'm super-excited about is a collaboration with Signature HealthCare in eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky. We're framing out a 60-care-home art project similar to the Penelope Project. Ideally, it is going to position the homes as cultural centers in their communities. The art-marking is inspired loosely by the story of Peter Pan, so it's going to be an intergenerational look into the meaning and value of childhood. I'm almost unable to sleep at night because I'm so excited. We're writing grants. It's in the planning stages. 

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