How a ‘Genius’ Plans to Keep Changing Senior Care

It’s official—senior care has a genius in its midst.

When the MacArthur Foundation announced this year’s class of “Genius Grant” recipients late last month, Anne Basting, a theater professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was among the 23 winners. Basting is the founder of TimeSlips Creative Storytelling, a nonprofit that teaches improvisational storytelling as a form of therapy for seniors with memory loss.

Awarded annually since 1981, the Genius Grants—officially known as MacArthur Fellowships—are no-strings attached grants for individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication to their creative pursuits.” This year, each fellow received $625,000. Fellows have come from fields as diverse of neuroscience and puppetry, and former winners include writer David Foster Wallace, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and surgeon and author Atul Gawande.

Since 2000, Basting has worked to inspire seniors with varying levels of cognitive impairment to brainstorm new stories, plays and poems, rather than attempt to access memories they may no longer have. She turned her ideas into a formal therapy protocol—TimeSlips—that caregivers and senior living communities can learn online or through in-person training.

Basting recently spoke with Senior Housing News about some of the larger implications the Genius Grant for senior care, the current climate for innovation, and what’s next for TimeSlips.

Wider recognition

TimeSlips has been widely adopted by senior housing and care organizations, with certified facilitators in 40 states and 12 countries. These facilitators have gone through formal training in the TimeSlips approach, which includes such practices as creating a ritual around the storytelling process and “accepting and validating” even seemingly nonsensical or nonverbal contributions to storytelling. Facilitators are involved with senior living communities and various other organizations, including skilled nursing facilities, adult day centers, senior centers, hospitals, universities, arts groups, and historical societies.

Among the senior living communities involved with TimeSlips is Luther Manor. Located just west of Milwaukee, the community in Basting’s own backyard offers independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing and other services.

TimeSlips offered a way for Luther Manor to transform memory care from being focused on boring, “childish” activities to being about meaningful engagement, Beth Meyer-Arnold, director of adult day services, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Anne Basting, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Milwaukee/Wisconsin, 9-6-2016.

Anne Basting, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Milwaukee/Wisconsin, 9-6-2016.

Studies, such as one undertaken by Penn State College of Medicine, are bearing out the notion that TimeSlips benefits both residents and senior care staff.

The widespread adoption of TimeSlips and validation of its benefits might be illustrative of a shift in the approach to senior care, as demonstrated at Luther Manor. And the Genius Grant could help further accelerate this shift, Basting believes.

To Basting, her receipt of the Genius Grant represents a wider recognition that senior care in America is changing, and the public perception of what senior care can be is also changing.

“To me, the field itself feels like it’s changing. We’re trying to figure out how older adults want to be integrated into the community and be active members in the community,” Basting explains to Senior Housing News. “We have to figure out how seniors housing is going to adapt to that and change.”

Ripe for innovation

The field of senior care is ripe for innovation. In fact, the conferment of the Genius Grant to Basting actually encourages more senior care innovation, she believes.

“In some ways, it’s supportive of innovation in the field,” Basting says. “I’ve been integrating creativity into aging for many, many years, and it’s supportive of that concept.”

The grant, in her mind, supports the idea that older adults can be valued members of the community, regardless of their cognitive abilities. Basting has seen this first hand—she’s worked with seniors who have dementia to create theater pieces around themes they are personally drawn to, or issues that impact them within their communities.

“I think it’s supportive of the notion of looking of age as capacity, rather than a series of accumulated losses,” she says.

Prize money plans

As for what she plans to do with the Genius Grant prize money, Basting is pretty clear—it’s being invested back into TimeSlips, with the hope that the therapy program will eventually reach even more seniors worldwide. One of the keys to accomplishing further growth, Basting thinks, is to have a welcoming website.

Anne Basting, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Milwaukee/Wisconsin, 9-6-2016.

Anne Basting, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Milwaukee/Wisconsin, 9-6-2016.

“TimeSlips is in the midst of expanding how it can engage with people on its website, a hub for what I see as an endless foundation for inspiration,” she explains. “We’re going [to use the money] to ramp the website up for user-friendliness.”

Specifically, Basting hopes the TimeSlips website will become more interactive, as well as welcoming to seniors with any and all levels of cognitive ability. TimeSlips is beneficial to seniors with memory loss, but seniors in independent living can use it as well, she notes.

“It invites people back into meaning-making, which I think people will agree that there’s a dearth of,” Basting says.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

Photo credits: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, CC BY 4.0