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When a Senior Can’t Remember the Story, Let Them Make It Up

Throughout history, seniors have been humanity's consummate storytellers. After all, the older we get, the more experiences we've had, and the more stories we have to tell.

But, what happens when your loved one begins to lose their hard-won narratives to Alzheimer's, or another form of dementia?

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Should you attempt the seemingly futile task of trying to help your loved one fill in the gaps?

Reminiscence exercises are fixtures in many adult day centers and senior housing facilities. A person with dementia may be presented with an object or photo from their past, and then asked to describe the memories and situations associated with that object or image.

While these exercises can be helpful for certain seniors, some experts feel that they may do more harm than good.

Anne Basting, director of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee's, Center on Age and Community, and founder and director of TimeSlips—an improvisational storytelling process designed for people with dementia—feels that trying to help a person suffering from memory loss to repair their damaged powers of recognition may backfire and, "create a sense of failure and lead the person with dementia to shut down their communication."

Restoring the storytelling role to seniors

While working with seniors in a local nursing home, Basting began to realize that traditional reminiscence exercises weren't having much of an impact on people suffering from dementia.

Previous experience had taught her that giving aging adults the freedom to "perform" had a profoundly positive impact on how they experienced the aging process. But, she says that this fragile feeling of freedom could be swiftly snuffed out if the pressure to remember muddled memories caused a senior to clam up.

The TimeSlips Project was born out of Basting's experimentation with creative storytelling and its effect on people with dementia. She began tinkering with techniques designed to "invite them [seniors] to experiment and open up again," with the goal of providing a, "valued role for people with dementia."

One of the methods Basting came up with was to show dementia-stricken elders creativity-boosting images of people and animals, and then have them make up stories about what was going on in the photos. "People with dementia can express themselves quite beautifully through imagination," she says.

"Magical" is the word Basting uses to describe the transformation in both the seniors and the caregivers that participated in the creative storytelling sessions. Removing the pressure to remember had such a profound impact on the seniors' level of engagement, that Basting says it, "changed how their communities saw them. They were no longer invisible, but were now ‘storytellers.'"

The magic of communal creativity

"One of the prime benefits of the storytelling is the sense of community building it creates," Basting says. Seniors take turns contributing to the story, which is moderated by the facilitator, who asks open-ended questions and records and repeats participants' responses to keep the flow of the story going.

A chief tenant of the TimeSlips method is that creative storytelling should be a participant-driven activity. Specially-trained facilitators conduct weekly, hour-long, group sessions designed to engage elderly participants in senior centers, day centers, memory loss programs, and long-term care facilities.

According to Basting, seniors in pretty much every stage of dementia have responded positively to these storytelling sessions—as long as they are still capable of some form of communication. But, people in the earlier phases of dementia will be more invested in recalling actual memories from their past.

DIY steps for creative storytelling

While Basting admits that the social aspect of creative storytelling is most potent when experienced in a group setting, she says "it also works beautifully one-on-one to bring people out of isolation and help care partners connect with each other in a positive, playful way."

Not everyone will have access to a care center that conducts creative storytelling workshops, but caregivers and their elderly loved ones can use the same techniques to hold one-on-one sessions within their own homes.

Here are a few tips to help you organize an at-home storytelling session:

  1. Pick a thought-provoking photo: According to Basting, the best photos are ones that seem staged, or where something feels out of place. Photos that appear to have a story behind them. Family photographs should be avoided because the reality of these images and the familiarity of the people in them can inhibit a senior's creativity. You can use the photo at the beginning of this article to help spark a good story.
  2. Ask open-ended questions: Examples include: "What do you want to call her?" or "Where do you want to say this takes place?" or "What sounds do you hear in the picture?" 
  3. Accept (echo and validate) all responses: This is key, says Basting. Even if the response is an unintelligible sound, gesture, or phrase.
  4. Retell the story and write down all responses: This will help your loved one focus and maintain the thread of the narrative, and prevent their enthusiasm for the activity from waning. Your loved one may also derive pleasure from hearing their contributions read aloud—even if they don't always make sense. Basting urges caregivers to try and resist making corrections to the narrative as they re-tell it. And, it also helps to throw the idea that a story must have a beginning, middle, and end, out of the window.
  5. Thank them: In group storytelling sessions, each participant is thanked. This practice shouldn't stop just because it's just you and your loved one. Basting says that you should be sure to thank them for their contribution to the tale because the energy and courage they exhibited by being creative needs to be acknowledged.
  6. Have fun and share: According to Basting, the concept of ‘the more the merrier' definitely applies to creative storytelling. The TimeSlips website allows you to post and share your loved one's stories, and invite other friends and family members to contribute. The site also contains information on how to find a facility that conducts TimeSlips workshops in your area.

Ultimately, by giving seniors with dementia the opportunity to write new narratives, Basting feels that creative storytelling may help give back a bit of what the disease steals from them. "They are allowed to be creators of something. They gain trust again in their ability to communicate, to make meaning," she says.

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