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Alzheimer's Patients Turn to Improvised Therapy

Memory ensemble

The eighth tip on the Alzheimer's Association's list of 10 tips for Alzheimer's patients to maintain independence is to stay active. "Continue doing hobbies you enjoy," the site advises. "Whether it's gardening, dancing, painting, volunteering, playing sports or card games, you will benefit from the mental and social stimulation."

But Wolfgang Roth, an avid theater lover, finds it more difficult for him to keep up with some of the plots of his favorite plays since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease four years ago. Luckily he found The Memory Ensemble, a 90-minute weekly improv session for people with early stages of Alzheimer's or other  forms of dementia.

The Memory Ensemble was founded by the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in partnership with the Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company. Lookingglass member Christine Mary Dunford serves as the group's improv coach and leads them through a set of simple improv games.

"When we think of people with Alzheimer's and other dementia, we think about people who are losing skills on a daily basis," Dunford told NPR, "but here, they're learning some new things, too. It gives them... a sense of self-confidence that they were able to accomplish this. And in this disease, there's not a lot of opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment."

One of the vital aspects of improvisation is being able to just be in the moment, which provides a perfect set-up for those who are unable to memorize lines or perform a scene the same way over and over again.

"Improv is just all about being in the moment and being spontaneous, and there's no right or wrong answer," Mary O'Hara, a social worker at CNADC, told ABC News. "For someone with memory loss, it's a really good fit because they still have imaginations and come up with wonderful ideas."

The flyer for The Memory Ensemble's seven-week pilot program last summer boasted that by "focusing on the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s core values of invention, transformation, and collaboration, members of The Memory Ensemble will learn to use their instincts, creativity and spontaneity as they work together to explore and create improvisational theater." Not only does this group provide a community for those dealing with the disease, but it also gives their caregivers the opportunity to help each other.

"It's like a support group for me," Roth's wife Mary Beth said. "It alleviates some of the stress, the isolation. I feel like they're helping me maintain my mental health." She says that Roth sometimes doesn't even remember the events of the class, but she reminds him over lunch afterwards. She told the Chicago Tribune that although he couldn't remember what he had done, "Every day after class, there was a lightness in his spirit. There was a buoyancy about him, a more positive attitude."

Dr. Bruce Miller, director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, would agree with Mary Beth. His work is based on research showing that people with dementia who participate in cognitively stimulating social activities have a better quality of life and sink into less depressive states. So while improv can be beneficial to the entertainment industry -- providing entertaining shows, vital skills for actors, and some of the best movie scenes of all time -- it can also provide an outlet, and a way to cope, to those suffering with Alzheimer's. 

"There aren't a lot of programs that are specifically designed for individuals with early stage disease," O'Hara says. "These people are told by doctors to stay active, keep their brains active and stay socially engaged. But memory loss makes it harder to do those things."

She's right in the fact that there aren't many programs for the early stages of dementia, but that doesn't mean progress isn't being made. The North Shore Senior Center in Northfield, IL provides Adult Day Services, called House of Welcome, that provides various creative opportunities including dance and movement as well. Plus, creative art therapy for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia is becoming a popular research topic for groups all across the globe.

The New York Times points out that quantitative results are difficult to reach -- because after all, how does one measure quality of life in numbers? -- but Darby Morhardt, director of education and associate professor at CNADC, who co-founded The Memory Ensemble, gets weekly reports from friends and family members of the participants on their observations of the impact the workshop has had.

“We need to capture what effects we can,” Morhardt told the Times. “Funding goes to evidence-based research, so we need to establish evidence for improved quality of life.”

Since there's no known cure for Alzheimer's, I suppose in this case, laughter really is the best medicine.

-- Ali Mierzejewski

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