Edited by Anne Basting, Maureen Towey, and Ellie Rose

University of Iowa Press
May 2016
230 pages
ISBN: 978-1609384135

Of the 15,000 nursing homes in the United States, how many are places you’d want to visit, much less live in? Now that people are living longer and more of the population are elderly, this question is more important than ever, particularly for people with disabilities. We must transform long-term care into an experience we and our loved ones can face without dread. It can be done. The Penelope Project takes readers on an ambitious journey to create a long-term care community that engages its residents in challenging, meaningful art-making.

Two people talking on a stage

At Milwaukee’s Luther Manor, a team of artists from the University of Wisconsin’s theatre department and Sojourn Theatre Company, university students, staff, residents, and volunteers traded their bingo cards for copies of The Odyssey. They embarked on a two-year project to examine this ancient story from the perspective of the hero who never left home: Penelope, wife of Odysseus. Together, the team staged a play that engaged everyone and transcended the limits not just of old age and disability but also youth, institutional regulations, and disciplinary boundaries.

The Penelope Project takes readers on an ambitious journey to create a long-term care community that engages its residents in challenging, meaningful art-making.

Inviting readers to see through the eyes of residents, students, artists, staff, family members, and experts in the fields of education, long-term care, and civically engaged arts practice, this book underscores the essential role of the arts and humanities in living richly. Waiting, as Penelope waited, need not be a time of loss and neglect. The Penelope Project boldly dreams of how to make late life a time of growth and learning. If you dream of improving people’s lives through creative endeavors, this book provides practical advice.

The Penelope Project was collaboratively created, and the book is authored by three of the project partners: playwright, scholar, and professor Anne Basting; director and creative producer Maureen Towey; and gerontologist and chief arts officer and co-founder of GeroStart, Ellie Rose.


“Using Art to Improve Elder Care”:  Guests from the Penelope Project share their efforts to use the arts to improve the lives of elderly people and improve care with Wisconsin Public Radio.

Listen to the program.

The Penelope Project: An Arts-Based Odyssey to Change Elder Care serves as a mentor and guide in how to compassionately and effectively infuse life and change into entrenched systems (namely long term care and higher education) through the arts. The impact of The Penelope Project shines in these words from Angela Fingard, one of the students who participated, ‘The most important thing I learned was the importance of feeling a part of a community, the importance of being a part of something bigger than yourself, to have a title or role separate from that of staff, caregiver, patient or disease label.’ The book is full of heart-opening gems like this one that challenge the reader to reconceptualize their own views and give confidence that projects like this are how we create lasting change.”

—Kyrié Carpenter, ChangingAging.org | Read the full review

“Committed to the best practices of humane long-term care, of socially committed, artistic, collectively devised performance, and the benefits of narrative to represent the marginalized, the stories, strategies, and testimonies shared in this magnificent book inspire theatre-makers, students, audiences, and populations of aging people and caretakers to harness theatre’s transformative power.”

—Jill Dolan, Princeton University

The Penelope Project is an immensely illuminating story of the impact of community based arts on the transformation of a long-term care institution’s systems and culture. This book offers detailed description of what it takes to make cross-sector work work inside a highly regulated setting. The Penelope Project’s greatest contribution may be in sharing the rigorous assessment of the project’s effects. The book is a lively, engaging, and poignant recounting told through the hearts, minds, and senses of the project’s large ‘cast’ of artists, Luther Manor leaders and residents, students, and visitors.”

—Pam Korza, Americans for the Arts 

About the Editors

Anne Basting

Anne Basting focuses her teaching and creative research on community-engaged performance. With a PhD in Theatre Studies from University of Minnesota, Basting is both a creative artist and scholar. She is the author of three books, including Forget Memory: Creating better lives for people with dementia (2009, Johns Hopkins UP), and dozens of articles and essays in a wide range of journals. Basting is the recipient of a Rockefeller Fellowship, a Brookdale National Fellowship, and numerous major grants for her scholarly and creative endeavors. She speaks internationally on the integration of the arts into aging services and long-term care. Her creative work includes TimeSlips Creative Storytelling, The Penelope Project, the Islands of Milwaukee, The Crossings, and Slightly Bigger Women, which she co-wrote and directed in 2015. Basting founded and continues to facilitate the Creative Trust, an alliance to foster life-long learning through the arts. She is currently coordinating the Creative Trust’s Student Artist in Residence Program, which brings 8 Peck School of the Arts students into care communities and aging services programs across Milwaukee. The SAIR program is funded by a generous grant from the Helen Daniels Bader Fund. You can get a sense of Basting’s collaboration approach to the communities with whom she works in this University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee video. Basting has recently been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. “Basting’s perspective on aging and the power of stories is changing the perceptions of caregivers, family members, and policymakers around the artistic and creative capabilities of older adults, regardless of age or cognitive status,” the Foundation wrote in its announcement. Read a Wall Street Journal article about Basting’s award. To learn more about Anne Basting’s work (and to see a trailer of a documentary film about The Penelope Project), visit anne-basting.com.

Maureen Towey

Maureen Towey is a director working in multiple artistic mediums. She worked as Creative Director for Arcade Fire on their Grammy award winning album, The Suburbs. Highlights from that campaign include collaborating on interactive video The Wilderness Downtown, working with Terry Gilliam for a concert at Madison Square Garden, and managing a number of Arcade Fire’s charitable projects in Haiti. Towey has also directed concerts for musicians Ray LaMontagne, Esperanza Spalding, tUnE-yArDs, Walk the Moon, Lord Huron, the Walkmen, and White Denim. She directed Black Mountain Songs, (curated by Bryce Dessner and Richard Reed Parry and starring the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) with a premiere at BAM in New York and subsequent performances at the Barbican in London. As an ensemble member of Sojourn Theatre, she leads radical community engaged arts events including Throwing Bones, Finding Penelope, and most recently, The Islands of Milwaukee. Additional theater highlights include The Saints Tour (River to River Festival), Three Sisters (Working Theater), Emergence (Foundry Theatre), Swallow What You Steal (ubom, South Africa), and multiple productions with Boise Contemporary Theatre. Towey also works as a contributing photo editor at The New York Times Magazine, producing content for photo, video, and virtual reality. She has been recognized as an AOL/PBS MAKER, a Princess Grace fellow, a TCG Leadership U fellow, and a Fulbright scholar in South Africa. To learn more about Maureen Towey’s work, visit maureentowey.com.

Ellie Rose

Ellie Rose co-created GeroStart after being a leader in adult day services for seven years. Her vision was to design an intercultural platform to educate adults how to increase personal enjoyment in life from creative living, learning and enlightenment practices as they age. Rose’s Creative Longevity method encourages age and ability integration so that people may connect through interests and creative processes. She built a team of leaders who specialize in using these same principles to develop creative opportunities for people living with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementia types. She personally trains artists, students, and aging service professionals and organizations internationally about Creative Longevity and how to integrate person-centered practices in adult day centers, assisted livings, memory cares and with caregivers in their homes.

Rose’s work draws upon her bachelor’s degree in fine art with an emphasis in health care integration and her graduate studies in applied practices of gerontology. She was a fellow in the United States LeadingAge Leadership Academy in 2014 and volunteers her time with the leadership education organization, Pathways to Successful Living. Rose is a visual artist who draws inspiration by visiting unique cities and neighborhoods. She divides her time between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Mexico City. To learn more about Ellie Rose’s work, visit morethanmemory.co.

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