Building Connections through Creative Engagement

Arthi is working as a program support assistant for Dementia Inclusive Durham, assisting in volunteer support and Creative Engagement session organization between Duke University undergraduates and elders living with dementia and other intellectual disabilities.

TimeSlips is an organization founded by theatre-maker, scholar, and MacArthur Fellow (2016) Anne Basting that seeks, as their mission statement notes, to “bring meaning and purpose into the lives of elders through creative engagement.” Their partnership with Dementia Inclusive Durham (DID), which encourages collaboration with volunteers and artists in residence, seeks to bring meaningful engagement to community members experiencing dementia.

The project uses an inclusive and creative community of care approach to create a strengthened dementia-capable system of support and services in the Durham community. Its target population are persons with dementia living alone, those aging with intellectual and developmental disabilities with dementia, and their families and caregivers. Seven organizations, including the Durham Center for Senior Life and Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, are participating across the Durham community to serve as the sponsors/sites for the engagement of persons with dementia and delivery of the TimeSlips intervention. Trained volunteers, ranging from Duke service-learning students to Artists in Residence, facilitate and support intervention sessions for participants living with dementia using the TimeSlips methodology.

As part of a Fall 2020 course with Assistant Professor of the Practice (Dance) Dr. Sarah Wilbur titled “Artists in Healthcare: Collaborations and Complexities,” I conducted weekly, half-hour Zoom and Phone sessions with elders and their care partners participating in the DID project engagement sites to ask beautiful, open-ended, imaginative questions. Inside of these sessions, we shared laughter, conversation, and space with each other despite differences in age, life stage, and memory. Our discoveries were featured in mid-November through a webinar at TimeSlips’ Creative Care Fall Festival, viewable here. I was given the incredible opportunity to work as a student of Dr. Wilbur’s on a “test phase” of the DID work in her course this fall, and am excited to work with DID as they move into full implementation across seven Durham Creative Care Sites as a program support assistant.

Though the majority of my work in public health as an Accelerated Master’s of Science in Global Health student has been in international contexts, global health is local health, and cultural communication doesn’t have to be experienced just outside the United States. Through Dr. Sarah Wilbur’s course, I was able to work extensively with individuals experiencing dementia and learn how to interact patiently and actively with elders through beautiful, open-ended questions that invite imagination.

Just as I had learned to communicate effectively across different languages and ways of life in my fieldwork in India, I was given the chance to learn from elders themselves the culture (including experiences, activities, and ways of communication) of dementia and living in the present moment. I wish to continue this work in a supportive role to give back to the organization that has taught me much about what it means to be present, to listen, and to genuinely be human. Young students and adults want to engage with elders in a mindful way, but often do not know how. Elders experiencing memory loss seek meaningful connection, but sometimes find it challenging to explore commonalities with children and young adults especially if asked about their past. In a time of significant physical distance due to COVID-19, the work of TimeSlips through DID’s care sites serves to facilitate open-ended conversations, art-making sessions, and honest discussions about mental and emotional health for elders living with dementia despite their memory loss.

My own goal of focusing on sustainability and health infrastructure aligns well with DID’s own 3-year goal of implementing sustainable infrastructure for future site implementation. In order to achieve the organization’s goal of working with 70 seniors over 3 years, this infrastructure is needed in a timely and efficient manner to maximize the productivity and positivity of experiences of staff and volunteers. DID has expressed a priority of enlisting an individual to carry the momentum from the Fall course and volunteer programming, in order to reach their 3-year goal. Using the quantitative and qualitative skills I have learned in my undergraduate and graduate education, I hope to aid in their communication and organization with Site Partners as well as volunteers to support the stabilization and centralization of DID’s operations moving forward.