Walking through the hallways and activity rooms of most senior living and nursing home centers, it is not uncommon to walk in on a game of bingo, Bunco, or to find residents sitting at tables with unfinished jigsaw puzzles. These centers offer opportunities to engage the residents in ways to preserve memory and retain their sense of purpose while gracefully aging.

penelopeRebecca Martinez, left, and Joyce Heinrich converse during the filming of “Finding Penelope,” a play inspired by a year of intergenerational conversations about the myth of Penelope from Homer’s “Odyssey.” (Submitted photo courtesy UWM Photo Services)But, what if there are other methods to engage residents to creatively age and feel part of something so large that it makes them smile? Forget their pain? Feel important? Reduce memory loss?

For Anne Basting, director of UWM Center on Age and Community Association, these questions arose after years of researching methods for embedding arts into long-term care, particularly for people with cognitive disabilities, such as dementia.

In 2011, she wrote “Finding Penelope,” a play inspired by a year of intergenerational conversations about the myth of Penelope from Homer’s “Odyssey,” and professionally staged throughout Luther Manor, a long-term care facility in Milwaukee.

“This play was a larger collaborative project,” she said. “I wanted to do something big that everyone in the whole care center could participate in and build together. And in so doing, build a sense of community and belonging and pride – and I wanted an outside audience to experience the play and never see a care center in the same way again.”

Penelope’s story includes fading memories

Basting, a writer and associate professor of theater, hoped Penelope’s story would resound with seniors at Luther Manor. The character of Penelope waits 20 years for Odysseus to return from his voyage, fending off numerous suitors, and then struggles to recognize him when he finally arrives. Basting thought seniors might relate to Penelope, as they knew what it was like to wait and deal with fading memories.

The multi-phase project became an effort to improve the quality of life for people who live, work and visit a long-term care facility by offering extended and meaningful educational and creative programming.

The Penelope Project is a collaborative effort involving UWM’s Center on Age and Community and the Theater Department, Luther Manor, and the Portland, Ore.-based Sojourn Theatre.

For eight weeks, UWM theater students went to Luther Manor and facilitated discussion on Penelope’s story. Discussion groups, movement exercises, visual art, stories and music emerged from the project that culminated in the March 2011 performance of “Finding Penelope,” a professionally produced, original world premier play presented inside the living spaces of Luther Manor.

On Dec. 14, supported by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, students presented four 10-minute original scenes born of the transcripts from their conversations with staff and residents to an audience of more than 200. Also involved were a team of nine Sojourn company members and affiliated artists from around the country who helped develop the script, design the production and perform in the play.

Play features ‘roaming format’

The challenges in creating a play with a roaming format that takes playgoers and actors on a half-mile route through the care center presented unique challenges to Luther Manor staff, but none as much as the initial question uttered by most residents, “What is a Penelope?” explained Ellie Nocun, manager of adult day

If you want to go:
Penelope documentary
screening Monday, Oct. 29,
5 to 7 p.m. Lippold Faith
and Education Center
Luther Manor, 4545 N. 92nd St.
Wauwatosa, WI  53225
Reservations required:
(414) 229-2740 or http://penelopedocumentary.eventbrite.com.


“Our common staff responses were, ‘sounds like a lot of work,’ and ‘this sounds interesting, but very complicated,’” said Nocun. “The challenge was to provide opportunities for others to recognize that they actually had purpose and meaning to contribute, even if they didn’t know who Penelope was or what a Penelope stood for.”

Integrating the character of the heroine Penelope with the residents was not limited to a single person, explained Basting.

“Penelope is played by a chorus – anyone who wanted join it, could,” she said. “They didn’t have to memorize anything, just show up. Penelope is the symbol of home, of welcoming, acceptance and love.”

While the residents grasped the concept enthusiastically, the challenge was in incorporating the collaborative efforts with the care center departments.

“Units are not used to collaborating,” said Basting. “In fact, there are often barriers to this. But why shouldn’t programming in one area collaborate with another? There is no downside. The theater company asked a lot of questions as newcomers that I think were helpful to the care center to see itself in a new light. And the theater company learned a lot about how to work with older adults.”

‘Penelope became what we did’

While creative collaboration is not easy, Nocun doesn’t believe it should be. Because of the production, Penelope continues to demand rigorous trials and innovative strategies that radically changed the way she interacts with older adults.

“Penelope became what we did. In fact, she was on the activity calendar,” explained Nocun. “I learned how inviting older adults to small groups made my job easier because residents wanted to keep working on their different projects each day. I didn’t have to come up with as many generic and entertaining activities because Penelope kept our schedule very busy.”

In addition to the activities surrounding the project, Nocun realized the expressive discussions inspired by Penelope helped her to know the residents in a more intimate way, and gave her a plethora of ideas for the activity calendar derived from their interests.

“My calendar has been more person-centered ever since and creative engagement has become a core element of our program of activities instead of extra work,” she said. “I would absolutely recommend collaboration through the arts for other nursing homes because the arts allow us to recognize the strengths of people in an often disability-focused environment. It eliminates the hierarchy because staff and residents contribute together as they ‘share with’ instead of ‘care for.’”

Pride, purpose, excitement emerges

Because the residents knew that they were involved in a project that was important and life changing, their behaviors began to change. Pride and purpose emerged, as well as excitement and feelings of importance, rather than helplessness. Instead of teaching the residents, the roles reversed and the residents began teaching the staff essential life lessons.

“Each contribution shared how they want to live, what they want to learn, and how they want to do it,” explained Nocun. “Staff, volunteers, caregivers and community members heard, read, watched and experienced residents’ voices! Bingo doesn’t do that.”

When UWM students held small group discussions, they learned what it is like for residents to have to wait for family members to visit, or staff to help them to the bathroom. Weaving groups gathered in lobbies and atriums attracted those who would normally remain in their rooms to participate in creating the communal art piece integral to the story.

In Homer’s story, Penelope deters suitors by promising to pick one of them when she finishes weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. All day long she would weave with her maids. And at night, they would unravel what they had woven.

Delivers message of hope, self-worth

“The play translated the insightful words of our residents into powerful messages of hope and self-worth,” said Nocun. “Expressions of purpose became a daily event like (resident) Caroline (Imhoff), who played Athena. ‘It is so nice to be a part of something that has an encompassing goal. Most days I walk the campus by myself and occasionally embark on a good conversation, but when we were working on the play, there were so many more people in the halls to talk to, and Penelope is what we talked about.’”

Working with Basting and the UWM actors was a life-changing experience for everyone, according to Nocun, who said that through her actions, she observed a change in the way staff relates to and learns from the older adults.

“The UWM students were outstanding as well as the Sojourn Theatre staff and actors,” she said. “The best part of working with them was teaching them that Luther Manor was not a place to visit, rather, a living, breathing community that they were impacting daily.”

Documentary to debut Oct. 29

As a result of their efforts, a documentary on the story of the collaboration of Basting and Sojourn Theater creating “Finding Penelope” will debut at Luther Manor on Monday, Oct. 29, from 5 to 7 pm.

The documentary by 371 Productions tells the story of this venture to engage an entire care community in learning and growing together by reading and responding to the story of Penelope.

“We hope to inspire care professionals, families, students and artists to think bigger and provide meaningful projects and learning opportunities for older adults whatever their abilities or disabilities,” said Basting.