Book Review: The Penelope Project

By Terri Tobey

The Penelope Project: An Arts-Based Odyssey to Change Elder Care, edited by Anne Basting, Maureen Towey, and Ellie Rose, describes the collaboration of three disparate entities experimenting with a novel approach for engaging long-term care residents in life enrichment activities.

Milwaukee’s Luther Manor residents and staff team up with a group of faculty and students from the University of Wisconsin theatre department, and professionals actors from Sojourn Theatre Company to develop, write, and produce, Finding Penelope at Luther Manor over a two year period. The play is based on the mythical story of Penelope, the heroine who is mother, wife (of Odysseus), queen and keeper of traditions, and who becomes a symbol for loyalty, perseverance and power. After persevering through months of related activities and hours of rehearsals leading up to the finale, the residents find their own inner power.

The impact of community-based arts transformed Luther Manor and broke with the longstanding tradition of segregated life enrichment programs. A constant work in progress right up until the final performance, Penelope transformed everyone involved in the process. The actors formed authentic relationships, meeting the challenge of working alongside residents with dementia and Alzheimers on stage. Intergenerational friendships grew as residents inspired young college students through their willingness to try new, uncomfortable things. Luther Manor staff and volunteers had eye-opening experiences learning refreshing ways to communicate with residents and ignite their curiosity and openness through an “invitation” to explore.  Even the residents were surprised by all the hidden talent which emerged within their ranks and continued to flourish beyond the two year project.

Finding Penelope became a catalyst for the reinvention of a long-term community structure; a rediscovery of each person involved; a rejuvenation of arts-based life-enriching activity; and a reaffirmation of relationships bonded forever.

Terri Tobey, Gerontologist and Senior Fitness Specialist