The Painted Lady

painted lady

The storytelling prompt for this week had an immediate and deeply emotional impact on the storytellers. It was a mannequin head (the kind used to store a wig) covered in papier-mâché newsprint and painted with exaggerated, cosmetic female facial features.

I went through the usual routine of introducing myself, explaining why we were gathered, and what we intended to accomplish, while they examined the storytelling prompt. It’s almost as if they were approaching a subject so holy and untouchable that to create a fiction story from it must be illegal.

There was a reverent, respectful atmosphere in this particular storytelling workshop, and long pauses between verbal responses. Here is the story they told, in the form of a poem, with strategic stanza breaks where the storytellers were silent.


By Patricia, Gretchen, Jeanne, June, Barbara, Ruth Ann, and Mabel

I took a training class offered by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Center on Aging & Community to become a certified TimeSlips facilitator. According to the TimeSlips training materials,

People with dementia commonly have social roles taken away from them. They retire from paid work. Friends might stop coming by. They might not remember they are a parent or spouse, or feel they can play these roles any more. Often, the only role available to people with dementia is ‘sick person’ — someone in need of care. As you can imagine, the role of ‘sick person’ does not offer much room for self-expression. TimeSlips creates a new role for people with dementia – that of ‘storyteller.’ This is a role people recognize and value, and that offers opportunities for meaningful self-expression and growth.

I had already experienced the workshop participants as storytellers, and I had become accustomed to discovering profound meaning about personhood within their stories — a phrase here, a line there, but this was the first time that the story consisted almost entirely of that type of heavy, introspective content.

painted lady

painted lady 2painted lady 3When the workshop was over, we all sat in silence. I took a few moments to mentally photograph the expression of what it means to be human on each lovely, aged face. Their collective, alienated souls permeated primal nobility so dense, it was almost tangible. I wondered if I could ever hope to capture and convey this moment to others, the people in the cars zipping past the assisted living facility, the students bustling to and from classes, the construction workers, dance instructors, technology administrators, accountants, and telemarketers.

I wanted them to stop what they were doing and notice what was happening, but our tiny communal understanding of personal significance had to suffice.

I thanked each person for the gift they had given, and as I did, Jenny pulled a folded piece of paper from her purse. It was a water color painting that she had apparently wadded up, as if to throw it away, and then changed her mind and flattened it back out again.

“I would like for you to have this,” Jenny said. She seemed to be embarrassed by the abstract nature of the artwork. “I don’t know what it is. I lost track,” she explained.

The colored shapes in the artwork were separated by white space, with very little mixing or overlap between. If I’d had to use only one word to describe the painting, I would have called it “Jungle.” Something vaguely resembling a face was there, toward the bottom of the painting, hidden among the vines and leaves.

At the top, Jenny had written, “I can’t do anything to help the situation. I’m in a nursing home. completely trapped; while Bev is in my home and my cats scattered. I will never be able to get out of here. Help me God!”



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