STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, the way we learn about the world is by telling each other stories. It's an ancient form of communication. And it turns out that for people with dementia, storytelling can be therapeutic. It gives people who do not communicate well a chance to communicate. And you don't need any training to run a session. Joanne Silberner has more.
JOANNE SILBERNER, BYLINE: Ask family members of someone with Alzheimer's or another dementia, having a conversation with a loved one who isn't sure who you are can be deeply frustrating. But things are different here.
LINDA WHITE: Can we turn your chair around, Dixie, so we can make a big circle? Is that all right with you?
SILBERNER: At a senior center in Seattle, 15 elderly people are forming a circle. All of them have some kind of memory loss. Many have trouble carrying on a conversation. Linda White is going to try to help them.
SILBERNER: The idea is to get people to make up stories by showing them photos and asking them to imagine what's going on. Not to try to remember anything, but to make up a story. It's a program called TimeSlips. White walks around the circle holding up a photo of a very fit elderly man. He's wearing a swimsuit, and a banana-yellow wetsuit vest.
WHITE: What in the world is he doing?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He's waterskiing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Waterskiing.
WHITE: He is waterskiing.
SILBERNER: The man is smiling broadly at the camera, perfectly framed by a big arc of water.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He's experienced, too.
WHITE: He's experienced. And he's cool.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He's happy.
WHITE: Boy, he sure is happy, isn't he? Yeah. He's...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Look at the grin on his face.
SILBERNER: They're enthusiastic about the story they're making up. He's a retired guy who's been divorced several times. He's got four children and a wife on shore, waiting to be taken out to dinner.
Most people with dementia live at home, and don't have the opportunity for this kind of session, run by someone who's trained to do it. But storytelling can be done at home, according to the founder of the program, Ann Basting.
ANN BASTING: Anybody can do this. Anybody, you don't have to play an instrument to do it. You don't have to be trained in visual arts to facilitate it. It's inside you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BASTING: You can learn it.
SILBERNER: Basting directs the Center on Age and Community at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She started work on storytelling as a way of giving people with dementia a low-stress way to communicate, one that did not rely on their memories. She sees it as giving caregivers a chance to reconnect with their loved ones.
BASTING: People with dementia start to forget the social roles that they play. They might not remember they're a spouse, they might not remember they're a parent. They need a social role through which they can express who they are, and the role of storyteller really supplies that.
SILBERNER: Not far from the senior center, 85-year-old Joan Gibson is at home in the small, comfortable apartment she shares with her husband. Her daughter Nora says her mom sometimes can't remember how to get from the bedroom to the kitchen.
NORA GIBSON: She wouldn't be able to tell you what she had for breakfast or, you know, some of the ordinary things, she doesn't track anymore.
SILBERNER: Nora Gibson runs the senior center where her mother often goes. Her mom has done storytelling. Nora's read about it, but has never done it herself, and has had no training. Still, she's going to give it a try. She just grabs a beautifully illustrated Oprah Winfrey book about life off her mom's coffee table.
GIBSON: You ready, mom?
JOAN GIBSON: Yes, I am.
SILBERNER: She leafs through for pictures.
GIBSON: Look at that picture. What does that make you think?
GIBSON: She's beautiful and she's all made up, and she likes looking at herself in the mirror.
SILBERNER: The reason storytelling works is that Joan doesn't have to worry about being wrong.
GIBSON: Well, I think she's going out to meet a man because you wouldn't dress like that if you were just going out with the girls.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GIBSON: I think you're right.
SILBERNER: One published study co-authored by Basting found that storytelling made people more engaged and alert, and that staff members at residential facilities had more positive views of their patients.
An independent study show participants were happier and better able to communicate in general. Basting says one of the biggest hurdles to getting the program going has been skeptical family members.
BASTING: Resistance comes when people say, my dad would never do that; he's a very distinguished man. It's beneath him; it's childish.
SILBERNER: And then, dad hops right in. Basting tells of one man who came to her in tears of thanks. For the past three years he has been driving his wife crazy, trying to get her to talk about shared memories. He tried her on storytelling - they could talk about the story, they could play with the plot line, he was able to communicate with her once again.
For NPR News, I'm Joanne Silberner.
INSKEEP: And that's Your Health for this Monday morning. You can visit npr.org to find the link where you can add a photo and start your story.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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