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Once Upon a Time -- Again

Making Memories

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 hesitation."

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