Improv and Dementia

For many, your first introduction to the idea dementia and improv was likely via the beautiful work of Karen Stobbe and Mondy Carter thanks to their Ted talk from 2015. Through their work they have sparked curiosity and joy, showing us the basis of creativity, flexibility, and how to enter the world of dementia. They gave us guidelines and made the connection between dementia and improv. 

Helping us deepen the work of Karen and Mondy we discovered the DementiaRAW Method and the Silver Dawn Training Institute founded by Tami Neumann and Cathy Braxton. With their book, Start with Yes! we learned exactly how to become better partners in care by using the basics of improv to help us enter the world of dementia. With the CDCS certification, we have a beautiful action step no matter what your professional or personal title may be. 

I have noticed a trend leaning towards how we as partners in care (professional or personal) can help individuals live well, with dignity, joy, and support by using improv. But what can it do for those living with the diagnosis? How can improv be healing for an individual with dementia? How can improv be both a moment of play and support?

Last month, I had the great pleasure of attending a workshop hosted by The Contemporary Theater Company, partnering with Home Care Assistance of Rhode Island to offer a 4 session program, Improv for Dementia. We gathered as individuals with dementia, care partners, care professionals, and theatre artists, spending our time together playing and SEEING each other, supporting each other, and learning more about how we all fit into this world. Christopher Simpson, the Artistic Director of the theatre, lead us through a few exercises, some of the standards that one might find in acting classes or rehearsals, but with the lens of our group’s purpose and needs, helping us become relational with one another. 

After a short break what started to look like a standard improv group became something much more powerful. For a moment we became a support group in play, showing our humanity and our desire to be in community with others, seen, heard, acknowledged. Our common thread of dementia became just that, a common thread. Not an “issue” to fix or something to try to hide. We followed the desire of one of the participants to take the group into a place they needed to navigate that moment of their dementia journey. We found ways to share our personal story of dementia, care, struggle, and loss through the improv platform. It gave us both security and vulnerability, allowing us to leave our time together in a special place. We may attend support groups and rant, cry, laugh with our loved ones about our experience and trials, but rarely is it given a non-linear place of the Both/And, spent with others who seek to find joy and playfulness on this journey. Rarely is it given the freedom it had to explore life in a new way. 

As we enter a new school year, a new season, a new month let us explore and learn more about how we might be able to use improv groups as support groups, memory café themes, and intergenerational programming.

Published by Kathryne Fassbender

Creative Gerontologist, Speaker, Catholic Innovator. I am also the granddaughter of someone who lived with Vascular Dementia.

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