Applying Comedy Improv Techniques to Communicate with a Senior who has Alzheimer's

  • June 06, 2017

Caregivers often look for ways to connect with a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, the adult struggling with memory loss may be desperate to connect with their adult children and other family members. Surprisingly, the bridge that may help bring them together might be one that is used by comedians. It is what is known as improvisation.

Improvisation comedy, also referred to as improv, has guidelines that can be used by caregivers to open up new worlds of communication with loved ones.

Here are the comedy improvisation guidelines that are based on the work of artists Karen Stobbe and Mondy Carteralso. Consider trying some of these techniques with your loved one.

Improv and Alzheimer’s

  1. Say: “Yes, and…” Don’t say, “Yes, but…”

    When you say yes, you validate and show acceptance for your loved one. It’s a form of empathy and starts the conversation in the direction that the loved one is taking. Follow them. They may be taking you on a pleasant journey through their current reality.

  2. Agree, don’t deny

    Saying no can be corrective, and that’s something people with Alzheimer’s hear all too often. They may hear it when they head toward the wrong room, talk too loudly, dress improperly, or simply address a family member by the wrong name. There are lots of no’s and denial for people with dementia. Your agreement can be a gift of comfort to a loved one. If you watch improv comedy, you will see this is the gold standard.

  3. Accept offers and gifts

    Accept the ups and downs of caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. There’s less fear when acceptance is the cornerstone of the relationship. When the low points occur, try the BANGS approach to soothe conflict.

    • B = Breathe
    • A= Accept, agree
    • N = Never argue
    • G = Go with their flow, let go of your ego
    • S = Say you’re sorry—as many times as needed to calm the loved one
  4. Be specific

    When guiding a loved one through a process, such as finding their way to the dining room, be specific. Talk a bit more slowly and pause so they can process the information.

  5. Listen fully

    When listening to a loved one who has dementia, use your heart, your mind, and even your creativity. He or she is trying to communicate through their actions and speech, no matter how confusing it may seem. You may know this loved one better than anyone else in their lives, so let your own memory help you connect to what they are trying to say.

  6. Accept their reality

    The reality you see and hear from your loved one is what they are living. Accept it. Join into it while you are with them. Doing otherwise may trigger conflict, which is where you absolutely don’t want to go. Don’t try to pull the person back into your world. It may help some caregivers to think of their loved ones reality as an abstract painting. There’s a story behind it full of life and emotion.

  7. Go with the flow

    Who’s flow? Well, that’s simple. It’s the flow of the person with Alzheimer’s. Many caregivers have learned to take that leap into the unknown along with their loved one. Consider it a type of entertainment or an adventure. Your curiosity may rub off on them and their good feelings may increase.

  8. See the value in silence

    There can be peace in sounds of silence and in the sounds of nature—birds chirping, breeze blowing, children in a distance, distant lawn mowers on a Saturday morning. Listening can be a form of communication when words cannot be. Your companionship during your senior loved one’s natural quiet times can enrich their life, if only for today.

  9. Commit 100%

    Be ready for a hundred percent commitment when you visit your loved one. It may help to take care of your own needs first so you’re not by a growling stomach or droopy eyes that could use a ten-minute break. Actors do this before heading onstage.

  10. Be in the moment

    Old feelings have a way of sneaking up on some caregivers, especially when they’re tired. But staying in the present can keep the relationship fresh, alive, and interesting. Even enjoyable, many caregivers might say. Empathizing with your loved one may also help keep you in the moment.

Improving Quality of Life for Seniors in Indiana

Although these suggestions are based on improvisation for theater, many of the principles are just plain good caregiving. That’s what you’ll find at Five Star Senior Living communities. Qualities such as empathy, commitment, compassionate listening, and acceptance make the communities in Indiana welcoming places for loved ones with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.


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