Theater program helps those with memory loss

Apr 25, 2012

By Greg Wright, NEWS contributor

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.”

From the April 2012 NASW News. NASW members click here to read the full story.