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Students see Alzheimer’s patients as inspiring, complex individuals

Drawing on the imaginations rather than impaired memories of Alzheimer’s patients is resulting in the creation of stories that are crafted with the aid of students in Elizabeth Dolan’s senior seminar. The students – junior and senior English majors – have conducted several sessions with residents of Bethlehem’s Kirkland Village over the past few weeks. The project will culminate with a multi-media celebration, and a range of individual student projects, including a play performance and an art exhibit involving the responses of schoolchildren to the stories created through the project.

With this class, Dolan and her students have employed a storytelling model developed by Dr. Anne Basting, author of several books on aging and Fellow at the Brookdale Center on Aging in 1998. The TimeSlips Project has generated hundreds of stories, produced plays and art exhibits, and rekindled the hope for human connection among people struggling with Alzheimer's Disease and related dementia, Dolan says.

“The process has been shown to help folks recover language and social skills that they tend not to use once they realize that speaking and interacting might lead to further diagnosis of the condition,” says Dolan, the Frank Hook Assistant Professor of English, whose research focuses on the intersection between medicine and literature.

Dolan’s first exposure to the TimeSlips program came at a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) seminar on medicine, literature and culture.

“Anne Basting, who initiated this whole process, came to talk about it and I was just floored by her presentation,” she says. “Like many people who know someone with Alzheimer’s, I was personally moved by images of folks with Alzheimer’s enjoying their imaginations and one another.”

At the same time, Dolan was approached by English major Kati Smeaton, who proposed an independent study combining narrative and therapy. Smeaton, who had worked at Kirkland Village since she was in high school, helped facilitate the connection between Lehigh and the senior living community.

“The whole project began because I happened to mention to Beth that I was interested in Art Therapy, and that I especially wanted to work with children and the elderly,” recalls Smeaton, who has a double major in English and psychology, as well as minors in writing and sociology. “Once I told her I had been working at Kirkland with dementia patients, it started Beth's wheels turning.”

Honing empathy and respect for the elderly

Prior to visiting Kirkland for the first time, students learned more about the aging process through lectures by Laura Katz Olson, professor of political science and expert in aging, and Laura Gonnerman, assistant professor of psychology, who helped the students understand the dynamics of language loss.

They also prepared by participating in a storytelling exercise led by professional storyteller Mary Wright, viewing films, and by reading narrative theory, social science research, short fiction, illness memoirs and other works including the pragmatic handbook, “The 36-Hour Day,” and the memoir, “Partial View.”

“Of everything we read this term, “Partial View” was the work that helped my students and me really hone our empathy and respect for the folks we are working with,” Dolan says. “Even more importantly, it helped us hone our sense of each person as a complex and interesting individual.”

During the senior seminar course, the students have worked with patients at different stages of disease progression, some more challenging than others.

“Some of the students were a little shaken when they first met the residents,” Dolan says.

“One of the striking things about people with Alzheimer’s is that the way they look is not where they are internally. This difference is really amazing, and a little disconcerting for some.”

But, as the groups continued to meet and interact with the patients, asking them to interpret provocative or fanciful images, they gradually began to see the patients as the inspiring and complex people they still are, Dolan says.

“The students have really gotten very interested in the life stories of some of these people and have gotten quite attached,” she says. “If we miss a week for a class back on campus, they’re really disappointed.”

A funny and poetic group

Dolan admits to learning right along with her students – a development that was equally educational for them.

“One of the most touching aspects of this whole process was being able to watch my professor learn as we learned,” says Martha Mackenzie, a first-semester senior who is planning on a career as a high school English teacher. “She didn’t pretend to know everything, or try to be in control of the whole process. She truly became at one with the students, and it’s not every day that you have a chance to see that.”

Sarah Kohut ’05, an English/history major who is planning for a career with museums or historical societies, considers the TimeSlips project “one of my greatest experiences here at Lehigh.”

“I had no idea what to expect, but each week has gotten more and more enjoyable,” says Kohut, who admits to a considerable degree of trepidation about working with the elderly patients.

Perhaps most surprising to Kohut was the creativity of the Alzheimer’s patients.

“I love some of the things they say,” she says. “They’re sometimes surprisingly funny and even poetic.”

Sue Meischeid, a senior English/psychology major who is planning to stay at Lehigh for a master’s degree in counseling psychology, drew an additional benefit from the experience.

“It’s taught me patience,” she says. “I’ve learned to wait when someone is trying to find words and formulate a thought.”

She also says she’s learned a great deal about Alzheimer’s and the inevitable loss that comes with aging.

“It often brings incredible despair, but also unexpected joys and humor,” she says. “An important part of this process was that we validate what they said – whether it makes sense or not – because we realize how important it is to acknowledge that it was said and heard. The story itself, whether it makes sense or not, isn’t as important as letting the storytellers run wild with their imaginations and creativity and have fun for a while. And they really seemed to do that.”

Adds Mackenzie: “I see this class as a gift in one of my last semesters here at Lehigh. I’ve been so moved by the smiles on the faces of the Kirkland residents, and I’ve become so attached to them. It will be tough to say good-bye knowing that they may never remember us. But in the end, it will be okay because I’ll remember them, and their smiles and the happiness that I took away from such a wonderful experience.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2005

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