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Once Upon a Time -- Again

Making Memories

What's in It for Them?

Basting says this kind of storytelling can be done with patients at all different stages of the disease, but it works best with those who are moderately impaired. "There are ways of bringing out people in late stage. If they can't speak or don't want to yet, I have them do things like pick a marker color for me to write with; if they only laugh, I'll put that into the story," she says.

"Early-stage people are people who still sort of have their faculties but are slipping, and they tend to be defensive about the facts. They will count how many buildings are in a photo and tell you exact things. They are more reluctant to go into the imagination," she says. "For people in the middle stage, the imagination is a fabulous tool and they revel in it. That is where all their memories live, too, and [storytelling] is a way of channeling them."

In addition to validating their thoughts and words, there are other benefits to engaging people with Alzheimer's, says Basting. "In a lot of the research I have done, if you keep them communicating in any way -- any kind of emotional outreach -- they are more alert and their quality of life is higher than if they start the internalization process," she says, referring to the point at which a person with Alzheimer's starts turning inward. "Once they start the internalization process, they die very quickly."

The benefits also extend to the nursing home staff. "To me the big thing is actually the staff's point of view," explains Basting. "If the staff is able to connect to people with Alzheimer's, it makes their job easier: it's the hardest job in the world to do, but if they feel they are emotionally connected it becomes this relationship rather than 'I have to change their diapers' and 'who cares what this person feels.' If they feel that personal bond they are more tender, more caring and the quality of care is higher."

It also helps family members once again see that there is a person still inside. "Usually what we do is go into homes and do about 10 weeks of storytelling; we get 20 stories and put them into a book and give it to family," says Basting. "They go, 'Oh, my God! And they see the potential for communication with them -- if they rethink their own needs for fact. A lot of time family members try to protect the memory of the person that 'was' and are more reluctant to indulge the creativity, the nonsense approach."

Taking the Story on the Road

In addition to holding 10-week workshops at individual nursing homes, Basting travels the country, conducting daylong training workshops and speaking to groups arranged by assisted living corporations -- that's part one of the project. Part two of the project is the public arts campaign. In Milwaukee, that involved a play and an installation with large pop-up books based on storytelling sessions alongside photographs of the storytellers.

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