Caring for individuals with Alzheimer's disease or dementia is very challenging and improvisation can assist in communicating, responding to behavioral challenges and in improving the caregiver's relationship with the affected individual.

Basically, improvisation provides a connection to the affected individual by saying “yes” to his or her reality. Improv can exercise creativity and wit despite failing memories of the affected individuals. Improv focuses on skills that people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia have not forgotten.

Improvisation requires active listening, experiencing joy in the present moment, expanding awareness and observation and letting go of control or the need to know what is happening next. Caregivers can open themselves up to previously unimagined possibilities and respond in ways to the affected individual that supports and promotes self-esteem and acknowledges interdependence.

The whole improv experience should be a means to embrace and express joy and release fear and anxiety for the caregiver and the affected individual.

The late David LaGraffe, founder and owner of Lights Up Improv in Portland, Maine, focused on improvisation: "Improv is an unconditional welcoming of the present moment. We learn to trust that everything we need is already here, waiting to be discovered — if we are willing to be open to it."

Improvisational experiences are having great successes through a program called The Memory Ensemble, which is an eight-week improvisational theater intervention program for people with dementia at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago.

Partnering with the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's disease Center, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, the Memory Ensemble aims to improve the quality of life for people with dementia and their families through improvisational performance and to investigate non-pharmacological intervention and to translate these benefits to other communities. In addition to providing mental and physical stimulation, this intervention also has the potential to improve quality of life by increasing self-confidence, and decreasing depression in the affected individuals.

The four basic steps of the improvisational intervention include:

  1. Always say "yes," and see where that takes you.
  2. Build on the first step by saying "Yes, and ..." In this way you comfort your loved one and ease them into the next conversation, rather than creating an obstacle.
  3. Make a statement, not a question. Dementia causes confusion, anxiety and agitation and asking questions all the time will contribute to those emotions. Making a statement can assist in redirection to things that are less worrisome and anxiety inducing.
  4. Get into the affected individual's reality. This is especially helpful in making things less tense and more relaxed for the caregiver and affected individual.

Individuals with Alzheimer's disease and dementia lose skills on a daily basis through the disease journey. Improv assists in helping them learn new things by engaging their creative abilities which, in turn, enhances and improves quality of life.

Questions about Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, director of services at Alzheimer's Services of the Capital Area at advice@alzbr.org or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.