Reminiscence can be a powerful tool for some people experiencing dementia, but sometimes it can feel frustratingly out of reach. When you can’t quite connect the dots between faces, names, and your own experiences, it can feel isolating, confusing, and embarrassing. Sometimes in our quest to help our loved ones, we accidentally put too much emphasis on helping them be the person they once were, instead of honoring who they are today, Alzheimer’s and all. Fortunately there’s another technique to try— storytelling. It engages the brain in similar ways, and helps seniors socialize and express themselves in ways similar to reminiscence, without the pressure of relying on memory to share.
Alzheimer’s patients can find an outlet for communication in creativity.
Creativity of all kinds can provide an outlet to share thoughts and feelings, to explore the self and relationships with others, and find context for a variety of roles and experiences. It’s a great way to share with friends and neighbors at a retirement home or memory care facility. Storytelling can be fairly traditional, like coming up with a narrative based on a written prompt or image, kind of like the old campfire game where everyone adds a sentence to the story in turn. Or it can look like dance, painting, drawing, or other visual, creative expressions.
One study out of Northwestern University has even found success with engaging seniors in improv comedy. In improv, actors don’t have to memorize lines, but instead get to perform extemporaneously based on simple rules of the game and the power of suggestion. Ann Basting, a gerontologist who developed a creative protocol for those with dementia called TimeSlips, noted that, "Theater is an especially powerful medium of expression for people with Alzheimer's, because it enables them to stand up in front of an audience and tell the people, both who care for them and who love them, how they feel.”
That can be challenging for patients, who might have trouble finding the words they need or the context for the disorienting experience of wandering off, forgetting who people are, or losing everyday objects. But focusing on the present can be hugely therapeutic, and help bridge the gap between a senior with dementia and his or her caregivers, whether they are family or neighbors and staff at an assisted living community. "It's about making it up in the moment, not about remembering the chronology of a life,” said Basting of the benefits of creativity over reminiscence.
Living in the moment is one of the things that keeps us young and connects us to one another. Studies have shown that everyone cab benefit from these creative exercises! Imagination and creativity aren't just for patients with dementia, but can be shared by those of all ages, tapping into what makes us most human. After all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing a loved one happy, laughing, dreaming, and sharing pieces of themselves?
Written by: Meghan O’Dea