Using the principles of improvisational theatre can vastly improve care and communication with people living with dementia. Improv’s first principle is to say, “Yes, and . . .” which doesn’t always mean using those exact words, but which does always mean going with the flow to help your partner look good. With regard to people living with dementia, it means joining their reality.
My friend and colleague Karen Stobbe, whose website and book are both named “In the Moment,” is an actor and theatre director who has used the principles of improv for most of her life, and never more consistently than when caring for her mother who died from dementia-related complications after living with Karen, her husband Mondy, and daughter Grace for many years.
For example, when Karen’s mother, upon hearing a Beatles’ song, said, “I used to date them,” Grace’s learned “yes, and” response was, “What was that like?” In other words, staying in the moment and going with the flow. But in spite of her background, practicing improv with her mother came hard at first for Karen because she still ached for the normal mother/daughter relationship. Many of us can relate to those feelings.
Among Karen’s other “Top 10” improv principles to apply to caregiving when people are living with dementia is “Be specific and concrete,” because dementia tends to make abstract thinking more challenging. The word “lunch” is abstract. Asking if someone would like “a warm gooey grilled cheese sandwich we can dip in tomato soup” is concrete. You can read a quick summary of some of the others in this article by Kyrié Carpenter.
My own interest in using improv principles for caregiving came from reading Patricia Madson’s wonderful, ageless 2005 book Improv Wisdom in which she outlines 13 maxims for wellbeing in life. I struck up a (still-going) email correspondence with her many years ago after writing my own version of “Improv Wisdom to Enhance Caregiving” condensed to six maxims in six pages. Improv is truly a lifelong skill for enhancing life.