November 28, 2014

Improv Works as Well with People Who Have Alzheimer’s as It Does With Children.


We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking to crawling to walking as it is for the scientist with his equations. If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he chooses to learn; and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach him everything it has to teach.

Viola Spolin, the First Lady of Improvisation

I would guess that for at least half of my waking life, I am perched in the world of unrehearsed fantasy.

“Mom!” My five-year-old Opal said this morning, busting out of her room, totally out of breath and visibly flustered.

“The boys are playing while Sabine and Riley and I are trying to study. They are going to have to spend the evening doing homework instead of playing. We have to get our’s done because we want to play tonight!”

(She was playing on her own.)

“Yep.” I said. “That is very true. Bill, please do your homework!”

(It was a guess that someone’s name was Bill.)

Opal ran down the hall to her room—still alone—and was back in a flash.

Mom. The boys just broke my chair! They were climbing and we tried to pull it away from them and it crashed against the wall! The wall didn’t break but the chair did!”

Her body language was that of a girl torn between two places at once. Legs in a wide stance, arms reaching in opposite directions, a small percentage of her attention on any one thing. She was managing many moving pieces at once, all of which she’d created.

“Oh dear,” I said. “You better go and try to fix it. You can handle this.”

She didn’t appear to be sure if I was talking about fixing the chair or the boys.

“If that doesn’t work, gather your pennies and we’ll call in the handy man.”

Mom—” she leaned in and whispered, in case there was any question, “for pretend.”

Later in the afternoon on that same day, while at work doing massage with my folks at the Memory Care facility, Frannie walked over to me and grabbed my arm, yelling, “Come on Father! Come on John!” She is very old, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s—a tiny, grey-haired thing with an Irish accent.

I took her hand and looked her in the eye. “Hi Frannie!” I said. She smiled a jaundiced, gnarly mouthful of teeth, then handed me a ball of men’s gym socks.

She said, “These are for the pelicans want you. It’s the truest heathen there is!”

“Thank you, Frannie,” I said and wrapped my arm around her for a side-hug. She was perfect hugging stature and wore special overalls that fastened in the back because she had made a habit of undressing herself in the halls.

I walked her to the nearest couch as she hollered, “Come on, John! Come on, John!”

We plopped onto the blue pleather sofa in the window, half of it warmed in the sun. I took both of her hands and said, “It sure is good to see you. Now how is John doing?”

Neither of these examples are isolated incidences. In fact, they were just plucked from the top. Between mothering a preschooler and working primarily with people who have dementia, I feel as if much of my world unfolds in real time from the imagination of others.

So, when I heard Karen Stobbe’s story on NPR of how she used her improv background to interact with her mother who had Alzheimer’s, I thought, “Of course.”

What is improv?

Webster says…

  1. To invent, compose, or perform with little or no preparation.
  2. To play or sing (music) extemporaneously, especially by inventing
    variations on a melody or creating new melodies in accordance with a set
    progression of chords.

Children and folks with Alzheimer’s live drastically in the present tense. So does improv. There is safety in meeting someone where they are, in matching them and walking with them, versus trying to lead them to where you think they need to be.

On her website, Stobbe’s provides an online workshop—a curriculum of sorts—to teach us how to work with people with Alzheimer’s using improvisational techniques. She provides handouts, exercises to do, discussion topics and tons of information about the disease.

She says the same characteristics of an excellent caregiver—flexibility, spontaneity, trust—are also qualities of an excellent improvisational performer. “These worlds are parallel.”

The Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company has embraced this idea by offering improv classes for people with early-stages of Alzheimer’s. They call it the Memory Ensemble.

“Improv is all about being in the moment, which for someone with memory loss, that is a very safe place,” says Mary O’Hara, a social worker at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Maybe thinking about the past and trying to remember makes the person a little anxious or even a bit sad because their memory is failing. And maybe thinking about the future too much is also anxiety-provoking. So being in the moment is such a safe and a good place to be.”

Lying together in my daughter’s bed, as she was getting ready for sleep, she asked me with concern what was on the agenda for the following day. Each of my answers led to more questions from her, more sorting, strategizing and anxious mental preparations.

To switch gears, I quietly flipped on the snow globe lamp by her bed, which lit up the ceiling like a rainbow-encrusted sphere containing the shadow of a winter storm.

I improvised: “Look, honey. The full moon is up.”

She smiled and lined up her stuffed buddies to see. She drowsily said, “The full moon makes it easy for the animals to see their treasures. And their houses.”

Then, within moments, she was fast asleep.


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Author: Heather Grimes

Editor:  Travis May

Photo: Chocolate Cake Moments

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