On a recent Tuesday, several adults diagnosed with memory loss gathered in a church in East Austin wearing pink wigs, cowboy hats, Hawaiian leis, and ski caps. One woman, who is really from France, told the others she was from Seattle and sung in a punk band. Another man recounted his recent journey sailing across the Atlantic. A woman from Mexico shared hunting tips. They hadn’t forgotten where and who they were. Rather, these men and women were the first group in Austin to ever try improv comedy as therapy for memory loss.
Last month, AGE expanded its Early Memory Loss Support program to a third site at Hope Lutheran Church in East Austin. In a new location with new participants, AGE brought in a new activity with the improv experts at Move Your Tale. The group was diverse—seven older adults with early-stage memory loss, program coordinator Delilah Dominguez, and a handful of eager volunteers, including the church’s pastor and deaconess.
They put their books down after book club ended. Amy from Move Your Tale headed to the front of the room. “We’re actually not in Austin right now,” she said, “we’re in an airplane. Where would you like to go?” They visited France, the Bahamas, and even caught the end of the World Cup in Brazil. Before starting that day, no one in the room had any idea if improv would be a success. Twenty minutes in, the biggest surprise was how quickly and enthusiastically everyone jumped in. “I think people with memory loss are actually great at improv, because they already live in the moment,” Amy theorized.
After improv was finished, the participants moved on to their support group, led by a social worker. They learned about each other’s struggles with memory loss. They found out about new treatments for their diseases and new strategies to help them get through everyday life. They strengthened their sense of community, sympathy, and hope. These experiences seemed tremendously important, but in the end, improv really seemed to be the core of the session.
By inventing new personas, these men and women with dementia were able to tap into old abilities and skills at the same time that they found new ones: creativity, inventiveness, and fun. By the end of their wild scenarios, a few people around the room were in tears with laughter. The experiment got the best endorsement imaginable when one participant said, “Improv helped me get back everything I felt I lost with Alzheimer’s.”