Improv and Other Creative Arts May Help Alzheimer's

Tim Watt  |  August 31, 2011

Senior couple walkingReceiving an Alzheimer's diagnosis may not be the funniest thing to happen to someone, but making jokes may help patients cope with the disease, according to studies being conducted by Northwestern University's Feinberg Scool of Medicine and Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Researchers are looking at whether theater classes can have a positive effect on the brains of seniors. Improvisational comedy, where they don't have to memorize lines or follow a story plot, has been proving to be beneficial to dementia patients who are involved.

"I've learned that I am imaginative, playful and creative," Susan Walsh-Haggerty told the news source about her experience in the theatre.

The idea that creative arts may improve the quality of life for seniors experiencing memory loss is being studied nation-wide, the news source reports. The International Art Therapy Organization reports that art therapy can give Alzheimer's patients a new way to communicate as well as improved concentration, better behavior and closer caregiver-patient relationships. In addition, many senior living facilities are offering classes that allow residents to stay social and engaged.

Mary Beth Roth told the news source that her husband, who suffers from dementia, had a more positive attitude after participating in the improv program, even though he didn't remember what he had done.

In addition to cheering Alzheimer's patients up, researchers believe taking part in improvisational theater may stimulate their brain chemistry to create new protections against further degeneration from the disease, the news outlet reports. This "cognitive reserve," as it is called, is a resilience that can be formed when patients participate in cognitively stimulating activities, according to Joe Verghese, a leading neurology researcher at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York.

The improvisational comedy program is challenging without being prohibitive. Making the storyline up as they go, Alzheimer's patients gain confidence in their capabilities and find it "freeing," the news source reports.

A recent improv session saw the plot leading from a pair of lovers to a mushroom hunting journey. Then, an ice skating expedition turned into a camping trip.

So far, researchers in Northwestern's eight-week project have found that the participants in their improv program reported feeling more confident and at ease with their diagnosis and less isolated and depressed. The researchers hope to write a program curriculum this fall so others can replicate it across the country. 

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