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The Sage Theatre Workshop at Sunrise Assisted Living

Still Point’s Sage Theatre Workshop for seniors has recently expanded to include a program at Sunrise Assisted Living that has a unique twist.  Still Point facilitator Maria Vorhis began conducting a program at Sunrise at the end of November. The hour long sessions are currently held twice per month, with Maria leading a group of 6-14 seniors.

While our other Sage Theatre facilitations follow a model similar to Still Point’s Imagination Workshop, in which participants develop and present an original performance, Maria’s classes at Sunrise have a different focus.  All of her participants are from the Memory Care Unit. Some of them have Alzheimer’s disease, some have dementia – all have cognitive issues that affect their memories in a variety of ways.

Creating a scripted performance would not really work for this group. So – what would?

Maria recounted to me her first visit to Sunrise, at the invitation of Activity and Volunteer Coordinator Rebekah Zhao.  Maria noticed a resident walking the halls, talking to herself in a very agitated manner. Maria approached the woman and started talking to her. Rather than trying to get the woman to explain the source of her anxiety, Maria showed her a photograph and started asking her questions about what she thought might be going on in the picture. The older woman immediately began looking at the picture and commenting on it, engaging with Maria, sharing her impressions. Rebekah saw the interaction and was convinced that Maria had something of value to offer the residents at Sunrise.

Approximately four years ago, Maria worked with a theatre company that conducted a year-long study on Alzheimer’s, which is when she first became familiar with TimeSlips, a creative storytelling method that engages the imaginations of seniors with cognitive disabilities. TimeSlips was developed by theatre professional Ann Basting in 1998. The method is simple yet brilliantly effective. Facilitators use photographs to elicit conversation from participants.  The photo serves as an anchor into the present moment: the participants and facilitator are all sharing the moment of regarding the picture.  Because the process engages imagination – there are no wrong answers. Seniors don’t experience the pressure of trying to remember something or make any particular connections. The creative storytelling context is broad enough to accept the ideas that they offer.

In Maria’s class, traditional methods of improvisation and storytelling are used to help the group come up with a story around the image that she chooses. Then Maria types up the group’s story. In this way participants contribute to the creation of work that can be shared with others. Maria has completed an online training course in the TimeSlips method, and is working toward becoming certified. She also draws on her experience in improv, and particularly in clowning, to conduct the sessions. She recognizes that it may sound odd to compare this work to clowning, but she revels in the important similarity: they are both rooted in full presence in the moment, and open-ness to the fact that anything can happen when imagination is the key ingredient.

Maria shared that the types of photos used are important. She chooses quirky, unusual images – nothing too iconic. She looks for pictures where something is happening, and the unusual image begs explanations.  She has used photos of a man riding an ostrich, a woman kissing a lion through a barred cage, and two women in Victorian dress fencing one another.  The pictures catch participant’s attention and get them thinking. This interplay can be extremely therapeutic for people with dementia.  The fact that the focus is on creativity is key – even people who have a hard time completing full sentences can communicate effectively with gestures, expressions, sounds and word fragments. The participants can reap the benefits of shared moments of meaning with others.

Maria shared the story of one of her Sunrise participants, whom we will call Nancy. Nancy was extremely quiet and wary in the sessions. Maria had the sense that Nancy was afraid to say anything for fear of being “wrong”. One day Maria happened to bring in a photograph of a woman in an airplane, and Nancy’s demeanor completely changed. Her eyes lit up and she started talking at length about Amelia Earhart, and how important she was as a historical figure.  Maria was amazed – and noted that apparently Nancy just needed an image that she could relate to in order to be drawn into the process. When participants make these types of connections, they can then inform which photos the facilitator brings to the group.

Maria’s work at Sunrise is just getting off the ground, but there seems to be a whole new realm of possibilities opening for Still Point to use storytelling as a tool for enhancing the lives of seniors. Reflecting on this work also provides important clues to how we can improve elder care by engaging seniors in the meaningful human interactions that they so dearly need. A smile or laugh, a gasp of curious wonderment, a melancholy sigh – all of these expressions create a sense of well-being when another human being is present and positively responsive.

To learn more about TimeSlips, please visit their website:

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