Patients Life's a Stage
|Dr. Anne Basting, Center, making dramaturgical
progress with her Alzheimers's clients
Adapted here (and expanded) is a story
that first appeared on the regularly-scheduled TV magazine
show "Study With The Best" (CUNY TV Channel 75,
Sundays at 8 am and 8 pm), which highlights CUNY's myriad
academic programs, outstanding faculty, students, alumni,
and important research projects. The lively, fast-paced series
is aimed particularly at the large local population of prospective
CUNY students in high schools.
Alzheimer's. You have probably heard about this devastating
disorder but figured it doesn't affect young people. Young
people, however, can still be touched by this illness. Maybe
you have a grandparent who doesn't always recognize you anymore
or an elderly aunt who seems to have lost touch with reality.
With Alzheimer's, the symptom you will probably start to notice
first is loss of short-term memory; later ever larger chunks
of time are lost. More severe sufferers will describe "black-out"
times when they panic because they don't know where they are,
or they will completely forget a person's name, or lose all
recognition of where they are and family members around them.
It's one thing to forget where you put the keys; it is another
to look at your keys and not know what they are for.
At Hunter College's Health Science Program,
a playwright is now exploring, in the way she knows best,
just how to put back together the puzzling pieces of reality
that Alzheimer's leaves in its wake: dramatically. Dr. Anne
Basting's project is aptly called the TimeSlips Workshop.
In sessions with Alzheimer's patients, she uses storytelling
and theatrical methods to delve into the often confusing but
sometimes also amusing world that Alzheimerôs patients have
"My long journey to working with TimeSlips started when
I was both a playwright and was pursuing a Ph.D. in theater.
From there I went on to study senior theater groups around
the country, which I always found were doing incredible work.
Naturally, I soon started wondering, after doing this research
for a couple of years, what would happen if people with Alzheimer's
had access to the transformational powers that theater has."
One day inspiration struck. "I just brought in a picture
I had torn out of a magazine, along with a sketch-pad. I just
said, °You know what? I really don't care what you remember!
It doesn't matter any more. It doesn't matter who you were
or what you can remember of your past life. Let's just make
something up"let's just give (and I pointed to one of
the six dementia patients, a man) this guy a name. Any name
you want! Say anything!"Basting laughs at the memory
of someone piping up, "Fred." "It was so simple
and I was so excited,"she recalls, "because they
really hadn't been talking at all."
"And so I wrote down 'Fred.' I said Fred who? And someone
else said °Astaire." I was astounded by their willingness
and their ability to be able to do this."
The script took off in some startling directions. "We
told that story about Fred Astaire, the singing cowboy, married
to Gina Autry and living in Oklahoma fishing for breakfast,
lunch, and dinner."The script session lasted 45 minutes,
which shocked them, me, and the staff, who slowly gathered
around from the periphery as we reached our climax."So
successful was this impromptu play-writing workshop that Basting
simply continued to expand her repertory. "Week after
week, I would come back and do the same thing, just making
sure to bring in new pictures."
"Very quickly, within the first month of doing this once
a week, we realized it was working very well. There was an
immediate clamor for training materials, so I came to New
York to do nine weeks of story-telling in that original research
project. Hunter's Brookdale Center on Aging opened its doors
Basting had been working with a Minneapolis director for some
time (her doctorate is from the University there), and was
telling the director about her patients' stories which, she
says, "were in effect extraordinarily vivid poems inviting
one into the reality of Alzheimer's."Her friend said,
"you know, you've got to make a play out of this."
Basting did just that, creating Time Slips, which has had
successful runs in New York City and Milwaukee. Its plot features
a movie cowboy who seduces his talking horse with old-time
songs and a can-can dancer with the legs of an ostrich. "A
spell-binding work of imagination," reported the Village
Voice. The play goes on tour in New Jersey this spring. For
information on the resources, training materials, and other
TimeSlips outreach, visit the Project's Web site (www.timeslips.org).
Basting's advice to students considering their future is apropos,
given the certain fact that the nation's elder population
will soon be burgeoning: "Look at the gift of what you're
going to receive by working with older people. It's open territory
we are in now: bring your gifts from wherever you are to the
field of geriatrics and you'll find people hungry for your