Improv For Alzheimer's: 'A Sense Of Accomplishment'

Many newly diagnosed Alzheimer's patients go through the stressful phase of realizing they are losing their memory while still having enough insight to know that, over time, they will no longer be able to care for themselves.

So a team of researchers from Chicago — a city known for improvisational theater — is testing a new idea of whether unscripted theater games can affect the well-being of these patients.

"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."

The Northwestern researchers are working with the Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company. There are already theater programs that use improv for Alzheimer's patients in the later stages of the disease, but this collaboration is unique because it's for early-stage patients.

"There's no experience required, there's no script, there's no memorization," O'Hara says. "They bring to it just their creative potential. And they are so successful at this."

Christine Mary Dunford, with Lookingglass, leads the group of novice performers in very simple improv games.

One "of the basic tenets of improv that [is] perfect for working with people with dementia [is] the concept of yes," Dunford says. "So, fundamental to all our work is that whatever answer someone comes up with, the rest of us are going to be able to work with it."

Researchers don't expect these games to stop or slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease, but they are investigating whether engaging the creative abilities of these early-stage patients improves their lives.

Before and after the eight-week program, participants and their families are asked a series of questions, checking to see how the course changes their answers.

"We're asking people to tell us how they're feeling about their physical health, their mood," says Darby Morhardt, a research associate professor at Northwestern. "How do they feel about their memory? How did they feel about their family, about their relationships? And also, how do they feel about their current situation as a whole and their life as a whole?"

"When we think of people with Alzheimer's and other dementia, we think about people who are losing skills on a daily basis," says improv coach Dunford. "But here, they're learning some new things, too.

It gives them a feeling of — a sense of self-confidence that they were able to accomplish this. And in this disease, there's not a lot of opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment."

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