As winter melts into spring, fresh plants come to life and emerge from the soil, we are surrounded by a sense of new beginning and a fresh start, and we feel the urge to consider new ideas and to try new ways of doing things. One person who was inspired to look at things in a fresh new way is Anne Basting, a professor of theatre at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and the founder of TimeSlips, a non-profit organization dedicated to training caregivers who engage with the elderly experiencing cognitive decline creatively.
Anne Basting was working as a volunteer with dementia patients when she made a remarkable discovery. A young caregiver during one of her shifts, brought with her an advertisement torn from a magazine and thought she would use it to stimulate the memories of her dementia patients. Realizing that none of her patients recognized the well-known advertisement or the famous person in it, she got them to make up a story about him. They gave him a name, a wife, a job, pets, a place in which he lived, and so on. In this way, she was able to engage with them and get them to interact with her.
Anne realized that the way to engage people experiencing cognitive decline and memory loss is to work with what they still have rather than try to bring back what they have lost. She calls her approach “Creative Care” and described it in detail in her book Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care. Her approach was to tap into the creativity and imagination of the elderly—the things that remain even after memories fade and cognition declines. In her book, she writes: “Connection flourishes when we shift away from the expectation of memory and toward the freedom of imagination and shared expression.” She encourages those who work with or care for the elderly to be wary of getting fixated on what is missing and to focus instead on what is still there—to emphasize the strengths rather than the losses.
An important concept in her approach is proof of listening. The idea is to let the elderly person know that they are being heard and what they are saying is being acknowledged, even if it does not seem to make sense. If the person says something that seems wrong to you, do not try to correct them. Instead mirror their communication and echo their words back to them. Mirror their gestures, their facial expressions, their intonation, and so on, which may make sense of what the person is trying to communicate. As a child, Anne had an experience with her grandmother, who had a stroke and could communicate only by tapping her forefinger. After a lot of trial and error, Anne finally figured out that her grandmother was asking her to get an envelope from the bottom drawer of a desk in her house. It was that experience that later helped her to communicate with patients who had communication limitations and to develop her “proof of listening” method.
What Anne has shown through her work is that having a sense of purpose can prevent cognitive decline, and even reduce it if it has already set in. Some think that the elderly have served their purpose in life, however, Anne has shown that through an appeal to imagination and creativity, the elderly can find new purpose in life: self-expression and creative goals towards which they can work.
The Creative Engagement approach to eldercare is not just for long term facilities, family members who are caring for an elderly relative can use it as well. Anne’s organization, TimeSlips, has posted materials online on their website, which can be downloaded and used by anyone who interacts with the elderly or caring for an elderly loved one. The address for the website is: https://www.timeslips.org/news-post/timeslips-friends-family-resources/