Twenty years ago, the Marlboro man and a person with dementia inspired an epiphany for Anne Basting (Ph.D. ’95). She was volunteering at a nursing home, trying to get residents to do improv games. For weeks, she got nowhere. But that changed when she tore a picture of the Marlboro man out of a magazine and asked a question.
“I just said, ‘tell me what you want to call this guy.’ And someone said ‘Fred.’ And I said ‘Fred who?’ And they said ‘Fred Astaire.’ And then a 45-minute story unraveled. And we were laughing and singing, and it was a completely transformative moment,” Basting recalls in an interview with NPR.
Out of that encounter, Basting created TimeSlips, an improvisational storytelling method in which older adults with cognitive impairment imagine stories and poems in response to visual cues. She then refined and transformed TimeSlips into a formal therapy protocol guided by her fundamental insight that the creation of new stories can be an enriching substitute for lost memories.
For her novel approach to improving the lives of elders and their families, Basting is one of this year’s recipients of a genius grant, a prize awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to between 20 and 30 individuals, working in any field, who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. The prize is $625,000 paid over five years in quarterly installments.
Across a variety of formats and platforms—theater, memoir, narrative, collaborative public performance, and academic research—Basting has developed an alternative concept of aging, one that focuses on its possibilities as well as its challenges and views sustained emotional connections as critical to our well-being as we age.
“Changing the perception of the way we see and experience aging is the impulse at the bottom of all my work. To shift the way we see aging—and we have traditionally seen it as an increasing rigidity and a decline, an accumulation of almost overwhelming losses—and instead to look at it as the coinciding of loss and growth,” Basting says.
Basting received a Ph.D. in theatre arts from the University of Minnesota. Currently a professor of theater in the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, she is founder and president of TimeSlips Creative Storytelling, and founder and coordinator of Creative Trust Milwaukee. She is the author of numerous articles, plays, public performances, and several books, including the recently released The Penelope Project: An Arts-Based Odyssey to Change Elder Care.