There are no rules in dementia land. Care partners on both sides of the equation never know what’s in store from one minute to the next — which is ideal for implementing the principles of imrov!
Here are some guidelines based on the loving, funny and magical work of Karen Stobbe and Mondy Carter:
1) Say: “Yes and…”
The simple act of deleting the word “but” from your vocabulary delivers amazing results. It creates connection and positive momentum by getting the ball rolling forward. The purpose is to stop the “no’s” because “no’s” stop the flow (see below!). Plus, “Yes, and…” validates rather than denies. It’s a platform for empathy.
2) Agree, don’t deny
More on agreeing here and on never, never arguing here. Pay close attention to the part in the video below about how often people with dementia are on the receiving end of “no’s.” I hear a chorus of “no’s” wherever I go; it breaks my heart and, more important, the hearts of those who are the recipients.
3) Accept offers and gifts
Being a care partner to someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia is like life itself – sometimes tragic, sometimes joyful. Learning to accept the ups and downs of the roller coaster ride makes it all a little less frightening. It’s also important to accept responsibility for defusing potentially difficult situations; more about that here.
4) Be specific
Being more specific in improv involves being more descriptive and giving more detail. This can also be helpful when communicating with somebody who lives with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, especially when guiding them through a process sequence. Slow down, be clear, check for understanding.
5) Listen fully
Listen with more than your ears. Use your eyes, your heart and your mind. Learn to look behind behaviour to discover what a person with dementia is trying to communicate by their actions. Listen to their behaviour–it may say a lot more than their words ever will.
6) Accept the reality given to you
Don’t try to pull the person with dementia into your world. Doing so denies theirs, and often ends in conflict. Stepping into their world is a springboard into something positive rather than a spiral into somehing negative. Where would you rather go? Up? Or down?
7) Go with the flow
Going with the flow turns the next moment into an adventure rather than something to be feared. It helps to create a new “story” full of possibility. Watch your partner’s eyes light up when you embrace her or his idea and run with it – what a joy! More here with the “G” in BANGS.
8) See the value in silence
I’ve spent countless hours with my dementia care partner holding hands, watching birds at a feeder, looking out at a field, simply being together in silence. Quiet times can be as engaging as activity, and silence provides space for possibility if you let it. Remember the “pregnant pause?”
9) Commit 100%
When you’re there, be there. Commit fully to the idea at hand and use your imagination to make it as rich and alive as possible.
10) Live in the moment
Pay attention. Feel your feelings, whatever they might be. Empathize with the feelings of your care partner who lives with dementia, whatever those feelings might be in any given moment. All things pass soon enough.
I know these principles work because I’ve used them myself. They are simple, powerful and fun.
You don’t need any special training, equipment, or skills. All that’s required is an open mind, the will to try and a little bit of practice.
This short video by Karen and Mondy shows some “how to’s:”
Explore improv further:
101 Improv Games for Children and Adults
Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy (a great resource; highly recommend it)