Once Upon a Time -- Again
Bumpy Road continued...
"That day, it worked: it went on and on and on for an hour
-- and these are people who hadn't spoken to me for weeks," she says.
"So that's where I started realizing that's where they can channel their
energy. People with dementia can't remember the facts of their own life but
they can create and imagine. If you ask someone with dementia a question there
is one answer and 99% of the time the pathway to that answer is broken. But if
you ask an open-ended question that they can answer creatively, there are a
zillion pathways for that to [travel] that are still there."
In a nutshell, the storytelling technique consists of gathering
in a circle a group of five to eight people with Alzheimer's. The facilitator
introduces herself to each and every resident then hands out copies of a
provocative photograph -- one that is clearly posed, so the would-be
storytellers don't get hung up on trying to remember nonexistent facts. Then
the facilitator starts asking leading questions about what the photo is about,
who's in it, what are they doing, etc., writing down everything they
say. Periodically, she reads it back to them, incorporating any additional
comments or changes.
Writing down all of their thoughts, no matter how nonsensical,
and repeating their words back to them are very important parts of the process.
"They start to trust their own ability to speak again and to make
meaning," says Basting. "Someone is getting what they are saying
at a point [in life] where everything they say is [thought to be] nonsense.
"When you are quoted, your words have more meaning because
they are taken seriously and they are being validated. That never happens to
them," says Basting. "And when you are echoing back, you echo back
how they are saying it too -- not necessarily just the words but the
emotional content -- with urgency, with satire."
At the end of the session, the facilitator thanks each and
every one of the participants for helping out. The stories are then typed up on
the back of each photograph and mailed to the nursing home, where they are kept
as well as distributed to the participants' families.
One in a Million
"Why this project is unique is important to
understand," says Basting, who comes from a "wild, avant-garde
art-theatre background" and loves theater of the absurd. "I am
comfortable with it [but] when I started doing storytelling in Milwaukee, one
of the recreational therapists said, 'You don't have any idea, but we are
trained deliberately not to do what you are doing.'"
Basting says that art therapy -- colors, clay, music -- is all
considered fine, but verbal creativity was an unspoken no-no.
"The fear is that [people with Alzheimer's] will start and
never stop, because [the staff and family] are still trying to pull them back
to reality and trying to make sense of this disease in some way. So the
caregivers are invested in making sense of the world of dementia, which you
can't do: it's a losing battle. You have to go to where they are [but] here is
this last bit of fear of letting go into that world," she says.
"That's why I set up the ritual [storytelling] steps so
clearly, so that there is a beginning and an end to this. It eliminates the
fear that once they go into creativity mode they won't come back," says
Basting. "But they aren't coming back anyway -- it's more about ouranxiety. So this program comes in at a different angle; it challenges that last