Lessons from theater improv

While there is no denying the hardships of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, a growing number of families are exploring innovative strategies for including lightness and laughter on the journey. One option is to steal a page from the theater arts—specifically, improvisational theater.

In conventional comedy improv, actors are presented with the unexpected and must come up with their lines on the spot. The objective is to have some fun with the situation. In the case of caring for someone with dementia, it’s the disease that’s throwing the unimagined your way. Your role is to respond with good humor.

Keep it positive. It is a tenet of theater improv to ensure that everyone on stage looks good. In other words, that the humor doesn’t shame or belittle your colleagues. With dementia, this may mean turning the joke on yourself. If Mom forgets an appointment, “Silly me, I must have forgotten to mention it.”

Flow with the cue that’s given. If Dad puts on three shirts at once, “Very snazzy, Dad. Looks like I’ve got a choice as to which shirt to see you in today.” If Mom pours ketchup onto her pancakes instead of maple syrup, “Hey, that’s pretty. You’re starting off with a new topping for your cakes this morning. If you want to switch off to syrup, let me know.”

Learn to say “Yes, and….” Especially with dementia, improvise to respond to the emotion your loved one is displaying, rather than the facts. Adopt a position of “Yes, and…,” suspending disbelief no matter how strange the statement. For instance, instead of telling Dad that the birthday party he’s recalling happened twenty years ago, not yesterday—denying his reality—go with his happy flow. “That was your favorite cherry chocolate cake, right? Yum! Let’s see if we can find some cake today.”