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The power of photography in breaking through apathy


Research shows that using photographs as visual prompts for reminiscence can improve engagement with caregivers and more general alertness in older people, writes Dr Maggie Haertsch.

Did you ever visit your elderly relatives and watch them pore over old photo albums? I was fascinated how the rich stories of years past came flooding back as we asked questions about the event, we analysed faces, and drew conclusions about family likeness of distant cousins, aunts and uncles. There would be robust arguments about the identity of a baby or the inheritance of someone’s good looks. The stories would shape our impressions of each character and they would form our own understanding of where we came from. The photograph is an eminently powerful medium to trigger memories, create stories and forge new understandings of history and events of the past.

Photographs define a point in time, a wedding, a graduation, a special gathering.  Today the camera has evolved to digital cameras inside a smart phone with almost everyone with a camera on them through out every day.

The photograph was first publicly available in 1839. Described in the film Turner based on the life of English landscape artist William Turner, the photograph challenged landscape and portrait artists by becoming their competition. Now there are many images available on the internet in digital form with fast and efficient searching capability through Google images that hold over 10 billion indexed images. The photograph is ripe for use, to trigger memories or to create new stories.

Dr Anne Basting, scholar, artist and founder of TimeSlips, understands the power of the photograph and developed a method for using them as a creative engagement strategy for people living with dementia and for people living in residential care. TimeSlips was began by Dr Basting in 1998 when she was searching for various reminiscence techniques that looked at ways to stimulate the imagination. Armed with a series of stories from the use of images as visual prompts, Basting wrote a play and went on to develop TimeSlips, with thousands of people now certified as facilitators worldwide. She describes the TimeSlips method as “storytelling to everyone by replacing the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine”. The elegantly designed website stores hundreds of photos and together with prompts as questions help a person create their own imaginative story. It is a portal of ideas and resources that is easy to navigate.

Research on TimeSlips has shown significantly improved engagement with caregivers plus greater engagement and more general alertness in the elder compared to their control group. In another study, TimeSlips helped fourth year medical students improve their attitudes towards people living with dementia.

Apathy is a symptom of dementia and remains a challenge for caregivers to provide a meaningful experience in every day living. The common rooms in residential aged care – where rows of people facing a television, sitting near others but not connecting, being alone and unengaged – need a serious review.

It is no longer acceptable that a person living with dementia has the television as a proxy for stimulating engagement. Using techniques like TimeSlips can add important value to a person and the caregiver by breaking through apathy and helping the person to feel more connected and able to express themselves.

It’s time to get out the photos and start sharing.

Take advantage of learning more about Anne Basting’s work at the *Australian Centre for Arts Health, Creative Ageing Conference 26 and 27 August in Sydney.

*This organisation is not affiliated with the Arts Health Institute.

Dr Maggie Haertsch is executive director and CEO of the Arts Health Institute, a non-profit organisation working to improve lives through the integration of the arts into all aspects of health and aged care environments.

Australian Ageing Agenda is media partner of the AHI.

Image: Jarrah Joseph-McGrath

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2 Responses to The power of photography in breaking through apathy

  1. Julie July 8, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    Our Lifestyle Coordinators use this technique a lot. I recall hearing about a gentleman from Vietnam living in one of our facilities who didn’t speak a lot of English (or who I think had forgotten a lot of it as he aged). The Lifestyle Coordinator at this facility collated images of Vietnam and would sit and go through the album with him. She said he would just light up, and chat away (usually in Vietnamese) about a memory the photo raised. What a lovely way to share happy times with a resident!

  2. Felicity July 8, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

    There is an app on iTunes called My Life Story which allows you to put photos to music, and add a comment under each photo which can be a prompt for recall (either by the person or by carers). This provides a great opportunity to really integrate someone’s story into their everyday. Worth taking a look here –

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