Improv for Thanksgiving

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4050056932_7c2543591d_mAre you concerned about how your Thanksgiving holiday will unfold if you are to spend it with someone who has dementia? Many families worry how to respond to relatives who confuse them with their parents, or who don’t know where they are. Interestingly, the techniques used by actors working in improvisational theatre may be very helpful to you.

Many people perceive improv as theatre with no rules and no boundaries. In fact, there are strict rules that are  key to a successful improv production, and those same rules could help you connect with your family members with dementia.


Rule #1: Yes!

The first rule of improv is to respond to any statement made by the other actor with “Yes!” The “yes” affirms that you have heard the person, and validates the appropriateness of that person’s response. For people living with dementia who often want to be in a different time or place, they frequently hear “no” to their requests. By starting your response with “yes!”, you signal support, validation and hope. And that type of response adheres to a key concept in dementia caregiving: “Don’t argue with the patient.”


Rule #2: And

The second rule of improv is to follow the “yes!” with “and”. If someone tells you that they want to go home, and you say “yes”, but with no follow-up, the conversation goes nowhere.  The “yes” becomes a “no.” Similarly, if you answer “yes,” and your next word is “but,” the combination of words is likely to turn the “yes” into a “no.”

When you follow the “yes!” with “and,” you move the conversation forward. It allows you to either build on what the person has said or to take it in a different direction. For example, if someone says he wants to go home, you can respond:

“Yes, and tell me about your home;” or

“Yes, and tell me who will be there;” or

“Yes, and let’s pick out some books to bring along;” or

“Yes, and I was just getting ready to have some tea, let’s have some before we do anything else.”


If your loved one is susceptible to hallucinations, and says there are clowns in the corner, you can respond:


“Yes, and I like the new costumes they are wearing today;” or

“Yes, and the one on the right is a great juggler;” or

“Yes, and they are saying that it is time for us to help set the table.”


Rule #3: Don’t Ask Questions

The third rule of improv is don’t ask questions. For actors, the rule is intended to prevent one actor from having to do all the creative work. For caregivers, the rule avoids putting stress on the patients, who may think that they are supposed to know the answers to any question. Set up the dialogue so that there is no expected answer. By taking away the stress of finding the “correct” answer, actors have found that both parties are able to allow their imaginations to take off and to engage in fanciful, yet deeply meaningful exchanges.


Why the Improv Approach Meets the Needs of those with Dementia

A good improv performance is the result of people who are committed to being totally “in the moment.” They are focused on what the others are saying, actively listening to them and imaging and sharing their vision. People who are suffering from dementia and whose communication skills are weak need people to give them this type of full attention.

Improv actors have to accept what the other actors are saying as true. By adopting this mind set, caregivers are able to share the reality as perceived by their loved ones. Whether it is understanding the longing to be in a different place or with people long gone, or agreeing to seeing things that don’t actually exist, caregivers are able to fully join the world inhabited by their loved one and support them.

There are no wrong answers in improv. There are no lines to memorize; there is no predetermined plot. When you adopt an improv approach, you can let loose your imagination and sense of whimsy, and find  new ways to share and engage with those with dementia.


For A Fuller Understanding

Many who study improv adopt it as a life philosophy for themselves. Those who want to know more about improvisation may enjoy Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, a former theatre professor at Stanford University. Bossy Pants, Tina Fey’s best selling book, contains a concise and humorous description of improv, which is excerpted in this blog piece. This American Life, the PRI radio show, did a segment on improv and dementia care last summer. The piece clearly lays out the wonderfully playful exchanges that can be had using improv.

Improv actors have discovered that using improv techniques with their family members with dementia can create unique bonds and unlock loved one’s remaining abilities and emotions that are otherwise hard to access. As you gather for Thanksgiving this year, consider using improv techniques. You may just find that you will have an amazing production, er- holiday.


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