Anne Bastings, MacArthur “Genius,” Empowers Those With Alzheimer’s Through the Freedom of Imagination

NPR host Kelly McEvers recently sat down and interviewed prominent theatre artist Anne Basting, who was awarded the MacArthur Foundation genius grant this past year for her truly unique research. Basting is an educator and theatre artist currently working at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee who works with sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Basting utilizes improv theatre and storytelling to enrich the lives of people struggling with cognitive impairment. She has been volunteering with people with Alzheimer’s for many years.

Initially, she had planned to teach improve techniques that were based on reminiscing and drawing on memories. However, these activities yielded few responses. The people she was volunteering with rarely engaged with memory-based activities. Basting decided to discard activities focused on remembering details of one’s life and instead channel the creativity and storytelling abilities that came natural to anyone.

As Basting puts it, if you suffer from dementia “certain pathways in the brain might not be allowing you access to certain words. Rational language, the ordering of sentences, the ordering of time - that's what's broken.”

As Basting would discover, once you break out of those confines and interact with people with Alzheimer’s on the level of symbol, of metaphor, of storytelling, they are sharp, alert, and fully present. “If you shift over to symbolic, emotional communication, it's all there,” she says. “You just have to open up the rules so people can access and express what strengths they have instead of going to the loss and asking them to communicate with you out of loss.”

Basting’s light bulb moment, per se, occurred when she shifted gears. She brought a picture of the Marlboro man that she had cut from a magazine into a session and asked everyone what they’d want to call the man in the picture. One person responded, “Fred.” “Fred who?” Basting asked. “Fred Astaire,” volunteered another person.

From that jumping off point an entire story unraveled over the course of 45 minutes. Basting sang along with everyone as they weaved a tale about Fred Astaire and incorporated songs from their glory days. Everyone was engaged, and Basting knew she had stumbled upon something truly extraordinary.

From her work that followed Bastings created the organization TimeSlips to engage people suffering from cognitive loss through storytelling techniques and using one’s imagination. With the freedom to imagine, people with dementia are able to soar to new heights and create something remarkable with their peers, which vastly improves their quality of life and builds lasting relationships.

Supported by research and now disseminated all over the globe, Bastings’ method allows anyone to connect with those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her Penelope Project led to community building on a larger scale, with a huge-scale production involving the entire community of an elder care center.

Bastings has mixed feelings about receiving the MacArthur genius grant – she hesitates to call herself a genius, as she steadfastly asserts that her many collaborative partners and the seniors she works with make her work meaningful.

“I hope the creative engagement work, when we share it publicly, helps people realize the existing and remaining capacities and strengths that older people have in general, and particularly people with dementia,” Bastings says. “Ultimately, it’s an effort to reduce stigma and ease isolation and loneliness.” Bastings is always humble, but one thing is sure – her work has enabled an entire generation to connect with their loved ones through the universal power of storytelling.