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MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Anne Basting has pioneered a radical change in how we interact with older loved ones, especially those experiencing dementia. In her new book “Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care,” Basting lays the groundwork for a widespread transformation in our approach to elder care using compelling, touching stories to inspire and guide us all in how to connect and interact with those living with dementia.

Rooted in 25 years of research, these new techniques draw on core creative exercises, such as “Yes, and…” and “Beautiful Questions.” This approach fosters storytelling and active listening, allowing elders to freely share ideas and stories without worrying about getting the details “correct.”

WAM: You place an incredible value on caregiving, calling it “the highest form of human development.” Why do you believe that?

ANNE BASTING: Philosophers and developmental psychologists—greater minds than mine—have pointed to this idea. It’s relatively well understood that human survival and evolution has been made possible because we care for each other. Major religions also consider accompanying the dying to be one of the highest honors or duties. And now, as the robots come for all our jobs, we are left to ponder, what is a human being for? I believe that learning to care, and to be cared for, are innate skills in some ways, but also take mindful practice and learning. And have great rewards. There is tremendous and powerful growth to go through in the later parts of our lives, the value of which we underestimate.

WAM: You lament that in our culture we tend to look at aging in terms of loss. What do we need to do to fix that?

BASTING: There are many many things we need to do…but I can give one simple example. Think of how incredibly helpful it would be to families if the diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s didn’t just identify losses but included some measure of what strengths remain.The person responds beautifully to music. The person laughs and tells jokes. Just 3 or 4 things that could help the person build resilience and help give the family and care teams ways to connect now and in the future. But we don’t. We only read those tests in terms of losses. We look right past strengths. They are staring right at us.

WAM: You have faith that our youth play an important part in how we improve our eldercare. Why?

BASTING: As a professor, over the last 20 years I have been guiding students through using creative storytelling to engage with people with dementia. Often it is their very first exposure to care homes and people with dementia. Almost all of them assume it will be depressing. And almost all of them find it so joyful and meaningful that they want to continue the following semester. It is tremendously rewarding to imagine how differently they will view their own grandparents, their parents, and their own journey into late life having started with a positive experience like this. It drives me to make these experiences part of every student’s education.

WAM: You developed a radical approach to working with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia using improvisational theater techniques. What response do you get from a person with dementia when you engage them in this way that’s different from other ways of communicating with them?

BASTING: Think of it this way. If you ask a person with dementia a question based in memory or fact, there is just one pathway in the brain for that answer to travel. And it might well be broken. If you invite someone with dementia to imagine a response, you open up 1,000 possible responses and pathways. The person can express and connect and feel the power of relationship again. It is totally transforming for both the person with dementia and the care partner.

WAM: Can you give our readers a few tips for how they can interact more effectively and joyfully when caring for someone with dementia?

BASTING: In the second section of the book, which covers all the elements of the technique, each chapter ends with tips on how to try this at home. And http://timeslips.org has a whole (free!) Creativity Center with 400 prompts to guide you through creative engagement. A very simple example might be simply looking out the window (using the window as a “prompt”) and asking open, beautiful questions, like: What do you see? What sounds do you imagine? Remember to reassure them that they can say anything – truly anything, and you will echo it and weave it into the story. There are no wrong answers. What smells? What colors do you see? What movements? You can echo the sounds and movements—and write down the responses into a poem and tape it to the window.  You can do that everyday. Everyday it will be different and give you a fresh look at the world.

WAM: What do you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

BASTING: There are a couple of key things I hope enrich reader’s experiences of aging and care. Learning to invite and affirm a person’s remaining strengths can strengthen you as a caregiver as well. Joy and sorrow can co-exist. We can be grieving the changes in a loved one and also experience joy and pleasure. It is okay to play. These techniques are essentially playful ways of inviting people with dementia to share their gifts – and they can be beautiful, poignant, thoughtful, and hilarious gifts – and they are for you and the world around them.

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Read an excerpt from Anne Basting’s new book, “Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care.”

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Order your copy of “Creative Care,” today.