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Nursing Homes as Cultural Centers?

A collaboration is making it happen at rural Kentucky nursing homes

By Anne Basting and SCAN Foundation

What if programming in nursing homes was so compelling, so intriguing, that family members asked if they could join in? And school groups started to compete for volunteer slots? And nearby arts organizations started calling to ask when they could partner?

Nursing Homes
Kentucky nursing home resident Bonnie Crawford and Angie McAllister of Signature HealthCARE  |  Credit: Kristen Miles

That isn’t a dream. It is unfolding right now in 12 rural nursing homes in Kentucky where a team of artists and staff are beginning a three-year journey toward transforming stigmatized nursing homes to vibrant cultural centers that can be resources for their communities.

Enough of bingo and balloon toss — no matter how beloved they may be. Together, in the I Won’t Grow Up project, we are exploring the themes inside the myth of Peter Pan and working toward three creative festivals in the spring of 2019 that will be open to the public. (The third year will involve training more trainers to keep the project going in the region.)

Infusing Creativity into Care

How did it all begin?

From 2009 to 2011, TimeSlips — a nonprofit I founded that works to infuse creativity into care systems — partnered with a professional theater company, a continuing care community (Luther Manor, near Milwaukee) and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where I teach in the theatre department. Over those two years, we explored the story of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, the hero who never left home and who kept the kingdom and her family going while Odysseus was at war.

It culminated in a professionally produced play that was staged in various spaces in Luther Manor with audiences following the action as it unfolded.

Angie McAllister emailed me about three years ago. McAllister is director of cultural transformation in the Hometown division of Signature HealthCARE, a Louisville-based nursing home provider.

“You don’t know me,” she wrote, “but one day soon we are going to collaborate on a project like Penelope.”

Building Community


Research on the Penelope Project (now a book and a documentary film) told us that we had succeeded in transforming the way people thought about aging and about what can, and should, happen in care settings. Families and volunteers joined in the efforts. Staff at all levels did ,too. Residents from all areas of care participated together. Through this rigorous art-making experience we built a community of meaning.

For TimeSlips, the Penelope Project expanded our training from a focus on creative engagement techniques to include community-building strategies. This is what is underway in Kentucky. I Won’t Grow Up Research Director Kate de Medeiros will lead a team to help us understand the impact of this “Creative Community of Care” approach, including its impact on mood and depression, a sense of belonging and any increases in family and volunteer engagement, to name a few.

We began with a two-day retreat in Louisville where quality of life directors gathered with the TimeSlips team of artists — both nationally and regionally based — to explore creative engagement and community-building through a series of workshops that included older adults. We are co-creating and learning together with older adults, staff, family and volunteers — not providing an intervention for them.

Coming in Spring 2019

We aim to create something of enormous beauty and meaning. Follow along with our Facebook entries and a series of short videos that will capture the story as it unfolds.

And come join us in Kentucky in the spring of 2019 to see the answer to the question: What if programming was so intriguing that the community wanted to participate alongside older adults in nursing homes? What if programming was designed to connect older adults to their communities and create meaningful legacies in the form of breathtaking art?

The TimeSlips’ I Won’t Grow Up project was funded by a Civil Money Penalty Grant (from fines collected when nursing homes do not meet requirements) through the Kentucky Office of Inspector General and the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS). Follow the project at

Anne Basting is a professor of theatre at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, founder and president of TimeSlips, MacArthur Fellow and 2015 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. Read More
By SCAN Foundation
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