“The Memory Ensemble”: How Improv Helps Mild Memory Loss
Improv comedy classes can be a lot of fun, and “the Memory Ensemble” is an excellent vehicle for improving the lives of people with dementia.
Improv is a great way for people who are overly focused on work or other commitments to “get out of their head” by learning to “misname” objects and say “yes, and” during a skit, helping to move the action along rather than stopping it cold by saying “but” or “no” as one might in real life. Improv is excellent training for living in the moment, without attachment to the outcome.
No Memory Required
The Memory Ensemble, a collaboration between the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, launched a decade ago to fill an unmet need: create a challenging and supportive learning environment for people with early-stage memory loss.
An eight-week theater intervention, The Memory Ensemble provides participants with “a sense of meaning, purpose, confidence, efficacy — and [it can] potentially decrease depression.” It’s designed for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and related cognitive conditions.
Each Ensemble consists of between six and 14 participants plus two facilitators (a teaching artist and social worker) who guide the 90-minute session. The Northwestern Medicine Alzheimer’s Disease Center Research Core and Neurobehavior and Memory Clinic make referrals for likely program candidates. The mean age of participants is 72.
Because improv happens in the moment, it’s a natural fit for people on the cusp of memory loss. There are no “wrong” answers in improv, and no acting skills required. One enthusiastic participant said of The Memory Ensemble, “I am not sure that my memory has objectively improved, but I’m sure that my ability to cope with memory loss has improved.”
This unique program offers seniors with mild memory loss:
- A safe, challenging, fun environment to engage their imagination and creativity;
- An opportunity to learn helpful communication strategies and life skills;
- Social engagement;
- A chance to laugh and express whatever emotions arise, in a supportive space.
Another participant said, “We all have a problem or we wouldn’t be here. But when you’re here, you feel normal.”
In a society where those with dementia are often assumed to be on a downward spiral, encouraging creative pursuits such as improv, dance, storytelling, and singing is something of a “cultural cure” for memory loss, suggests gerontologist and theatre arts professor Anne Basting. “People with dementia are living in a world of metaphor and we just need to move into it.”
What could be more perfect than a playful environment in which the core tenets are:
- Say “yes”.
- Add on to whatever is proposed: “Yes, and…”
- Simply make a statement, regardless of how outlandish it is.
- Work with what’s there; there are no “mistakes”.
The humor in improv typically arises organically, from the inspiration participants bring to each moment, knowing they have complete freedom to say and do whatever they wish within the parameters of improv principles.
Stress: A Laughing Matter
The maxim that laughter is the best medicine is grounded in truth. Laughter decreases the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies, which helps improve short-term memory, according to a study conducted by Loma Linda University.
The Loma Linda research found that when seniors watched a 20-minute funny video, they not only had lower levels of cortisol in their blood — they were better able to learn and remember new information.
By contrast, long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol actually shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory formation and function, as well as the prefrontal cortex, which aids in problem-solving and impulse control. So if improv encourages a senior to chuckle or even enjoy a deep belly laugh or two, it’s having a powerfully positive effect on their brain.
There’s a precedent for laughter therapy as a form of holistic medicine. In the 1960s, decorated journalist Norman Cousins, author of the groundbreaking autobiography, Anatomy of An Illness, was diagnosed with a degenerative collagen disease that left him in near constant pain. Cousins, who had just returned from a very stressful trip to Russia, reasoned that stress must have somehow contributed to him getting sick.
Cousins devised his own healing regimen, which included watching a continuous stream of humorous films. He claimed that ten minutes of belly laughs produced two hours of pain-free sleep, something even morphine could not provide. After several years of laughter therapy, he was able to resume a normal life.
Setting the Stage for The Memory Ensemble
While improv cannot guarantee hilarity, the very nature of the art form is lighthearted. For seniors who are starting to experience memory loss, or who have mild cognitive impairment, The Memory Ensemble offers hope and renewed faith in their ability to harness their mental energies for both enjoyment and healing.
In addition, the unscripted format of The Memory Ensemble enables those with memory loss to feel they are exactly where and who they need to be. Results include:
- Initial Uncertainty: “Am I doing it wrong?”
- Increased Mood and Confidence.
- Connection and Community.
- Cultivating Success: The facilitator’s encouragement, guidance, and flexibility contribute to a member’s mastery of improv concepts, self-confidence, or a sense of ability to succeed.
“I could be more myself, not constrained by what other people might think… It was freeing.”
“I felt trust and friendship…I felt security.”
“Whatever a person brings to the table, we say ‘Yes!’ And not only do I like your idea but I’m going to work with you.”
And whether or not improv engenders laughter, it definitely improves participants’ sense of humor, as evidenced by this comment from a class member: “It’s a no-brainer, excuse the pun.”
How The Kensington Supports Residents with Memory Loss
Memory loss is life-changing for all involved. At The Kensington Redondo Beach, we provide a state-of-the-art memory care program and a staff-to-resident ratio based upon resident needs.
Since memory loss affects each individual differently, we specialize in customized care that emphasizes independence and self-sufficiency as much as possible. While we’re always there, ready to assist as needed, we strive to ensure each resident has the ability to live as independently as their circumstances allow.
Please contact us soon, so we can work together to create the ideal memory care program for your loved one’s unique situation.