Theater program helps those with memory loss

Participants in early stages of Alzheimer’s, related dementia learn to live in the moment

Social workers and a member of a Chicago theater group say an improvisational theater program they created at Northwestern University in Illinois is helping people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia enjoy a better quality of life.

The Memory Ensemble™ program is a joint effort of the university’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Lookingglass Theatre Company, and strives to help participants learn to live in the moment.

The program has already proved so promising it is gaining attention across the nation, getting mention by National Public Radio, The New York Times and other major media outlets.

“We have a lot of interest in the program from many people throughout the country,” said NASW member Darby Morhardt, a research associate professor at Northwestern University. “We are really focusing on enhancing the curriculum.”

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, one of the leading causes of dementia, and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Morhardt and Christine Mary Dunford, an ensemble member of the Lookingglass Theatre, first came up with the idea of using improvisational theater to help people with memory loss. Mary O’Hara, a social worker at Northwestern’s CNADC, soon joined their cause.

Improvisational acting helps those with early-stage dementia focus on the skills of creativity and spontaneity. Exercises require participants to live in the now, making up dialogue and actions as they go along; skills they can use in real life.

There also is less pressure in improvisation, because all answers are right.

“The Lookingglass Theatre produces mostly original work,” Dunford said. “We have been working with people of all ages and felt like the (improvisational program) was a new direction.”

The “Memory Ensemble” program brings together groups of six to 12 people who are in the early stages of memory loss for eight weekly 90-minute sessions. Participants are asked to do a metaphor check-in when they arrive, such as what color do they feel like at the moment? For example, are they feeling blue or sad or a more optimistic yellow?

Participants then do a physical warm-up and gentle stretching, a skill-building exercise, and free-play or issue-based improvisational exercises. They close with a discussion of the day and a final metaphor check to see if their moods have changed.

For example, in one exercise, each participant imagines they are a character with a family, health or other issue identified by the group. Participants then create characters and scenes based on the issue.

Preliminary evidence indicates people who participate in the program leave with an improved quality of life and feel less depressed and less anxious. The exercises also benefit caregivers, who can use the improvisation class time as a way to connect with other caregivers and get a period of respite.

“He has a ball,” Mary Beth Roth told “ABC News” about her 80-year-old husband, Wolfgang, who has Alzheimer’s disease and has taken the class. “It’s fun and it keeps his brain active.”

Northwestern is gathering data to try to quantify the effectiveness of the program, Morhardt said. Morhardt, O’Hara and Dunford also said they expect to share the program’s curriculum with other professionals who work with people in early dementia.

“There are very few quality-of -life intervention programs directed toward people with very early or mild dementia,” Morhardt said. “Most programs and services are geared more at the more moderate and later stages.”