Braydon Connell sits in a semi-circle of about 10 patients with Alzheimer’s disease, in a sunny room at Northwood, a long-term care facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
With a marker in one hand, and a pad of paper in another, the 24-year-old is leading the group in building their own improvisational tale.
They are participating in TimeSlips, a program designed to lead dementia and Alzheimer’s patients in creative storytelling. Each member clutches a picture of two penguins holding hands. This image serves as a starting point. From here, they build.
The penguins, the group decides, are in love, and it’s for keeps. Participants use their imagination, taking turns deciding what happens next. The penguins get married. They have a baby. They squabble over which penguin school is best to send it to.
When a polar bear moves next door to the penguin family, he takes up too much space, and the neighbors argue over property lines. At which point, one of the group members launches into a story about a time he had his own real-life trouble with zoning. He, for one, severely doubts the bear’s integrity: “Oh,” he says. “I bet those polar bears wouldn’t give up any ground, they’re not going to move their property lines.”
The current four facilitators who have been certified in Canada are: Erin Petersen, B.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org); Aleda Johnson, B.C. (email@example.com); Ann Milligan, B.C (firstname.lastname@example.org); Braydon Connell, N.S. (Braydon.email@example.com)
Connell, who is working toward his Master of Science in occupational therapy at Dalhousie University, says these humorous moments are the beauty of TimeSlips. “So many of the activities we do with people living with dementia are memory based. But with TimeSlips you can say whatever you want, whatever’s in your head,” he says.
The program allows participants to express themselves creatively — and sometimes emotionally — in a positive, low-pressure environment. Here, there are no right or wrong answers. The goal is not to remember, it’s simply to communicate.
Anne Basting, now a theater professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts, began developing TimeSlips in 1996. Basting had noticed that improv drama techniques had a powerful effect on healthy older adults, and wondered if they could be helpful for people with Alzheimer’s. She experimented with about a dozen sessions, and turned the resulting stories into a play. From there, the program grew. Today, TimeSlips has over 2,000 certified facilitators worldwide, and Canada is home to four of them.
Connell started running programs as a volunteer after becoming certified in 2012. He usually works with groups of five to 10 adults, but says that TimeSlips can also be used one-on-one.
According to him, anyone can run the program. Some resources such as images used in the program are available for free on the TimeSlips site for caregivers. Connell suggests that those who are interested in using TimeSlips often take the online training course – which costs $249 and includes certification – to get the most out of the program. Family caregivers are eligible for a scholarship that allows them to get training for free.
Research has shown that TimeSlips can be therapeutic. One study co-authored by Basting and published in The Gerontologist showed that storytelling made participants more alert, and improved residential facility staff’s views of their patients. Another independent study in Nursing Research found that people who used TimeSlips were happier and better at communicating.
Connell says TimeSlips helps to remove some of the isolation that people with Alzheimer’s feel. “Many times in the facility residents might be sitting in the same room but they’re quiet,” he says. “But after telling a story like that, everyone’s stimulated and talking.
“They get to take on this new role as a storyteller. They feel good at it, and like they’re part of a community.”
Sometimes, Connell says, stories told through TimeSlips can help participants express more difficult, complex emotions. One group he worked with chose a photo of a cowboy jumping through the air as the starting point. As the story unfolded, they determined the cowboy had lived a hard life. His wife had left him, he’d lost his children, he’d been led far from home. The cowboy, they decided, was trapped by circumstance.
While none of the participants made the direct connection to their own experience, Connell suspects some might have been using the story to talk about their sense of loss and entrapment. “It sounded like the story of someone living in the long-term care facility,” he says. In the end, the group titled the story “He’ll never make it, but keep trying.”
Still, even symbolic sessions stay mostly lighthearted. For groups with Alzheimer’s and dementia — as for everyone — stories offer an escape. With TimeSlips, participants have full control over the outcome of their stories. Their endings are usually happy.
In one of Connell’s recent sessions, the storytelling began with a photo of a woman laughing. One member, unsatisfied with a straightforward tale, immediately piped up, “She’s laughing so hard that she’ll turn into a monkey, then take off in a jet plane to go back to the trees.”
Without questioning the story’s strange turn, someone else jumped in, “She’ll swing from vine to vine collecting bananas for her children.”
She’s laughing – and so are the members of the group.
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