Can laughter change lives? The Lookingglass Theatre Company likes to think so. A special collaboration between the group and researchers at Northwestern hope that improv sessions can improve self-esteem for Alzheimer’s patients.
I spoke with Mary O’Hara, a social worker at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
The Memory Ensemble offers improvisational acting classes to people with memory loss. We offer eight-week sessions and each meeting is 90 minutes in length. Classes are led by a teaching artist from Lookingglass Theatre Company and a social worker from Northwestern’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
We are investigating what impact the intervention has on individuals experiencing early stage memory loss.
How can improv help patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s?
Improv focuses on skills that people with Alzheimer’s Disease have not forgotten. All members bring is their own creative potential, spontaneity, and willingness to try something new.
In addition to providing mental and physical stimulation, this intervention also has the potential to improve quality of life by increasing confidence, and decreasing depression. Surveys from the pilot program suggest that as a result of the Memory Ensemble, members were better able to accept a diagnosis and cope with cognitive changes.
What have participants shared about their experience with the Memory Ensemble?
We are in the early stages of research to evaluate if improvisational activities improve quality of life for people with memory loss. We have completed two pilot sessions and have measured quality of life by using a validated and reliable scale. Members reported they found the program cognitively stimulating and emotionally supportive.
Participants enjoyed a feeling of success at accomplishing something new, which inevitably increased their self-confidence. One member said, “I am not sure that my memory has objectively improved, but I’m sure that my ability to cope with memory loss has improved.”
What was the purpose of this project?
Until we have a cure, we must focus on helping individuals and families cope with and live with this disease. The purpose of the Memory Ensemble is to address an unmet need for programs designed for people with early stage memory loss. When a diagnosis is made, people are told to stay mentally and physically active, but there are limited opportunities to do this that are specifically designed for people with early stage memory loss. This program brings people together who share a common bond and offers them a unique and enriching experience.
Image: Lookingglass Theatre Company via Mary O’Hara