Several years ago, I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar in medical humanities at the Hershey Medical Center. We resided at the medical center for a month, had daily lectures and discussions with experts in the field, and had the opportunity to do things like shadow physicians and nurses through the hospital and attend grand rounds. It was a fascinating experience in many ways. The thing that sticks with me the most, however, is TimeSlips, a program developed by Anne Basting, director of the Center on Age and Community at the University of Wisconsin, as a way of engaging Alzheimer’s patients in storytelling.
Basting’s motto is “Forget memory; try imagination.” When she began working with Alzheimer’s patients and storytelling, the emphasis was all on trying to get them to tell their own life stories. But this was a disaster for everyone, as it only agitated those having trouble with memory. So Basting decided that she’d change the frame a bit and developed a technique whereby a group of patients tell stories in response to striking photographs like the famous one of an elephant trainer sitting with his hand on his elephant or the one of a bunch of nuns in a Volkwagen bug. The emphasis is on the here and now and the use of speculation and fantasy, much easier on those who not only can’t remember but fear their loss of memory.
The stories are not traditionally coherent by any means, but what happens is that many of the patients have fun. When I first saw the film Basting showed us at Hershey, I was stunned to hear Alzheimer’s patients break out in song and laugh at the variety of wild ideas that came out of the group. All fifty of us in the room watching that film wept at the evidence that people so often dismissed as “gone” could express joy and pleasure and participate in a creative group activity.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing available on the web now that’s anything as powerful as the film I first saw. I’m not sure why—perhaps it has to do with privacy issues or with the fact that TimeSlips offers paid, professional training in its techniques. But here is a tiny taste.