This morning, NPR featured a story about a program at Northwestern Medical Center in Chicago that has enrolled people living with early stage dementia in the community in an improv class, coached by Christine Mary Dunford of Lookingglass Theater.
Similar activities, such as Anne Basting’s TimeSlips, have been used successfully for people with moderate to advanced cognitive impairment, but this is felt to be a unique program for those with milder symptoms.
NPR reports a variety of positive outcomes, including learning, creativity, socialization, in-the-moment engagement, and good old-fashioned fun. The 5-minute broadcast is worth listening to (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/15/139585522/improv-for-alzheimer-s-a-sense-of-accomplishment), but I’m going to focus here on one aspect of the report:
In one particularly enjoyable exercise, Dunford brings in common objects and asks the participants to take turns imagining the object transformed into something with a different purpose. (This taps into creative, out-of-the-box thinking and is something you might have seen improv comedy troupes do in their routines.) In this case, after each person states his or her re-interpretation of the object, the rest of the group validates the effort with an enthusiastic shout of ”Yes it is!”
The ability of a group to play off of one person’s insight is a central part of an improv routine. But for people living with dementia, it has an additional benefit: it validates the concept of alternate realities.
Most of the time, people with dementia hear us say “No it isn’t”, when they offer their view of the world around them. We focus on the logic of their statements within our own frame of reference and then try to use logical arguments to shake them back to our reality, usually with less-than-ideal results.
This exercise reminds us that by understanding the person’s perspective, validating their efforts to express themselves in their unique manner, and proceeding from that point of reference, we can move people to a more positive experience and a heightened self-esteem.
Try it yourself next time you interact with a person who sees things differently, and see where it takes you!