Improv theater workshop help local Alzheimer’s patients connectWritten by Chase Will | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Using improvisational theater, students from University of Toledo help early onset Alzheimer’s patients “live in the moment.”
Twice a semester, Professor Irene Alby brings several of her theater students to the Northwest Ohio Alzheimer’s Association to teach patients games involving spontaneity and self-awareness.
“There have been programs around the country with improv theater, and some of the initial results have found that it’s improved the sense of accomplishment and enjoying living in the moment,” said Brenda Hendricks, program coordinator at the Northwest Ohio Alzheimer’s Association.
Hendricks said improv theater is particularly helpful because it doesn’t rely on memorization, which patients may struggle with. Rather, improv is about going with the flow and enjoying the immediate energies.
“We have a lot of storytelling with our theater activities,” Hendricks said. “It brings a lot of joy to them, and there’s a lot of mentoring, sharing between the students and those with memory loss and their caregivers.”
This theater program between UT and the Alzheimer’s Association has been active for nearly three years, and it is part of the association’s early stage engagement program meant to enrich the lives of those recently diagnosed with any form of dementia.
Each two-hour session, twice a semester, is comprised of six to seven activities aimed to keep patients active in their awareness of themselves and those around them, typically through situational improv games and storytelling.
“They may tell stories about something they experienced, or we might pick a theme and act it out or create stories from pictures we pass around,” Hendricks said.
Alby said when the association approached her about bringing her students in she was immediately hooked by the “magic” of intergenerational mentorship.
“We get a lot of different generations in one room together,” Alby said. “People with dementia tend to forget recent events, but they’re very clear on their past, and they had the most incredible stories to tell these students in their 20s.”
A few of the patients shared their own experiences from the theatrical world. One man was a former makeup designer, and he told stories of his adventures in the business while encouraging their pursuits. Another man told the story of meeting his wife, a former Broadway actress, whom he flew on his personal plane to Atlantic City following their marriage.
Hendricks said the program has been very successful in bringing patients out of their shell.
“We’re actually laughing the majority of the time,” Hendricks said. “I think when you get a diagnosis of early stage memory loss, it can be overwhelming and stressful. To bring these experiences of joy can help raise their quality of life and bring camaraderie during a difficult time.”
Bringing this sort of joy to their elders has also opened students up to new possibilities in their theatrical aspirations, Alby said.
“It helped them see how the skills they’re getting are so beneficial not just to them or the sake of performance and entertainment, but also they can be used to work with people to help them communicate effectively,” she said.
Alby’s students have previously used their skills to perform characters and scenarios for UT’s criminal justice department as well as the American Language Institute, where students may be learning English as a second language.
The Alzheimer’s Association works to eliminate the disease through enhancement of research while providing support to anyone affected. The association serves 24 counties across Ohio, and it is estimated that more than 38,000 families within these areas are affected by the disease.
There is a 24-hour helpline available at 1-800-272-3900 for anyone with questions about disease associated with memory loss or for anyone interested in receiving more information on programs offered by the Alzheimer’s Association.
The next “Experience the Theatre” event at the Alzheimer’s Association is 1-3 p.m. Feb. 20. Those wishing to observe or participate may contact the association at the above number.