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Once Upon a Time -- Again

Making Memories

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 1, 2001 -- First, there's the photograph: an old black and white shot of a man riding a bicycle on a high-wire stretched between two New York City skyscrapers. Then there's the story behind it.

It goes something like this:

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"The picture takes place recently in New Bern; you can tell it's recent because it has a 'citified' look. And it's gorgeous; you had to be there -- and will be there. It's in the fall; we can tell because it's darker. It's beautiful and there is a lot of red. The fellow who is on the bicycle is Birdie. Birdie is an artist wearing a new suit -- as honest as he can be. He's on a bicycle riding all across the country, looking for his mom and dad. And one day he'll find them and when he does, they'll hug and kiss. It looks like he might fall into the water; if he does then he'll drown. One time, he fell and he had to go to the hospital, and we said, 'My Birdie lies under the ocean.'"

At this point in the tale, one storyteller breaks into the song; one by one the others follow suit.

The story -- reminiscent of something "theater of the absurd" playwright Eugene Ionesco might have written -- was created by six or seven residents of the Bremen Jewish Home in Atlanta who are moderately impaired by Alzheimer's disease. They were helped along by Anne Basting, a fellow at the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College in New York City and the project director of Time Slips.

Bumpy Road

Using a technique she pioneered, Basting leads -- and trains others to lead -- storytelling workshops for people with Alzheimer's and related dementias. The premise behind Time Slips is that creative storytelling helps open communication with -- and foster an understanding of -- people with Alzheimer's disease.

"I started out as a scholar, getting a doctorate in theater and doing research on older performing groups; separately, I had done some volunteer work with people with Alzheimer's," says Basting. "The older performers all talked about how their lives are transformed by this opportunity to perform: they get to become something new at a time in their lives when they didn't think that was possible. And I started wondering if that was possible with people with dementia, because so clearly the only role they can play is 'sick person.'"

In a Milwaukee nursing home, Basting developed -- through trial and error -- a technique that defined a new role for them, one in which they could express themselves. "I tried a bunch of exercises and none of them worked -- most were memory based," she says. "One day I tore out a picture of the Marlboro Man and brought it in with a big sketch pad and said, 'We're just going to make it up and I'll write it down, because I am tired of trying to jog your memory and it feels a bit cruel.'

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