Louisville has become recognized as the hub of the nation’s aging care industry and the region has long been fertile ground for the arts.
Now, one company is linking the two by launching a pioneering project in a dozen of its Kentucky nursing homes to improve the quality of life for residents and make them creative centers of their communities.
That project began to unfold in January during a two-day training in a Brown Theatre conference room in downtown Louisville with a group of instructors including Kevin Iega Jeff.
“Eye contact. That is so important. OK. Trust me,” announced Jeff to the packed room of more than 50 people.
Some in the group were artists, but others were elder care professionals with Signature Healthcare, a company that provides long-term nursing care in 11 states.
The training kicked off a three-year project in 12 rural Kentucky nursing homes that is using improvisational storytelling that incorporates sound, movement, words and visual art to tell stories relating to Peter Pan. The point is to enrich the lives of nursing home residents using art, and through it, improve their health and happiness.
Jeff, a very tall dancer and choreographer who has a dance troupe in Chicago, taught participants a movement workshop on imaginary flying.
“A lot of time, they are blocking their creative potential because they don’t see themselves as artists,” he said. “They don’t think that they have anything to offer.”
But the technique this project uses invites anyone to participate. It’s called TimeSlips.
TimeSlips is the brainchild of Anne Basting — a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. Besides working with residents using TimeSlips, she and Signature Healthcare are structuring the project to involve people from the community — groups active in libraries, schools and businesses.
“These nursing homes are actually pretty well run systems with some resources in these rural areas that kind of are stigmatized and seen as places that nobody wants to go,” she said. “‘Never put me in a nursing home.’ And, we’re flipping that.”
Improving physical, emotional health in nursing homes
Last year, Basting visited Louisville to begin working with Signature Healthcare’s Angie McAllister to oversee this massive project. McAllister wants to help redefine nursing homes from isolated to inclusive places in communities.
“We’re in the business of giving hope to people who maybe feel like all hope is gone and maybe they’re viewed as stigmatized by society as well,” she said.
Through this project, Signature Healthcare also aims to improve conditions at nursing homes and medical outcomes for residents. The company’s chief medical officer, Dr. Arif Nazir, said there are many recognized problems in the industry.
“Too many pills, right, too may opioids,” he said. “Look at this opioid crisis. Not enough staff members. A lot of turnover in the industry because the job is so hard.”
But Nazir has confidence in the potential of this project.
“The most innovative approach where you can easily communicate with others and loved ones — or strangers even — is through art,” he said.
As TimeSlips becomes part of Signature Healthcare’s treatment, Nazir and other medical professionals will monitor medical outcomes such as weight loss, how people eat and other behavior. The company will also document staff turnover and family satisfaction.
What Started It All
This is all happening because McAllister discovered Basting’s work several years ago. That included Basting’s work with a team of artists and residents and staff of a Milwaukee-area nursing home over a two-year period to tell stories related to Penelope from “The Odyssey.”
Basting remembered getting McAllister’s email.
“She wrote, ‘You don’t know me. But we’re going to collaborate. We’re going to do ‘Penelope’ and it’s going to be 25 times the size,” Basting said. “And here we are and it’s happening.”
It’s also happening due to a nearly $700,000 grant approved for this this project in October and distributed though the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The grant taps money collected from penalties levied on nursing homes and similar facilities.
In a music workshop, Louisville singer-songwriter Cheyenne Mize passed out instruments and asked the participants questions — and asked them to answer in an unexpected way.
“What stands out to you in your ideas of home? What is that feeling of home? And when you have that idea of what that feeling is, put that into a sound,” she said.
First, percussive instrument resonated like the sound of a cricket before sounds of other instruments joined in, until a the room was filled with a cacophony sounding like a forest or woodland in the summer.
The Way Forward
This spring, Mize will begin working with four nursing homes but primarily one in Hodgenville. She said her work as a music therapist over more than a decade made understanding TimeSlips easier because they share methodologies. Mize realized early on how TimeSlips works for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“It’s really meeting people where they are, not worrying about what people can remember or how they remember things, but instead using their past experiences and their creative nature to create new stories — to look at a picture and decide who they want that person to be not just to remember who that person is,” Mize said.
By the training’s end, groups had drafted creative project and partnership ideas for their communities. Sonya Turner, the quality of life director at Hodgenville’s Sunrise Manor, was anticipating a lot of work ahead for staff, residents and families.
“I think they’ll adapt and they’ll like it. And I think it’s going to be a real heartwarming thing to see overall,” Turner said.
Basting and McAllister are already knee-deep in coordinating. Still, both are eyeing a larger future for the use of TimeSlips.
“Angie and I are already thinking, like, 10 years from now, of course, when we have a creativity guide that any nursing home can participate in – right – anywhere in the country,” Basting said.
Elizabeth Kramer is on Twitter @arts_bureau and on Facebook at Elizabeth Kramer – Arts Writer.