New York Times (August 7, 2010): Trying Improv as Therapy for Those with Memory Loss

Publication Date: 
Sat, 08/07/2010

Five of the six members of the Memory Ensemble were gathered in a nondescript conference room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, ready to begin their weekly improvisational acting workshop.

“Where’s Irv? We need Irv,” one said.

“Oh, he’s always late,” said another. “He’s very dependable that way.”

At first glance, they could have been any group of energetic older Americans dipping their toes into amateur theater. But it was soon evident that this was not a social event: Ensemble members exhibited pronounced physical and verbal tics, abrupt lapses in conversation and other telltale signs of the cognitive disorders that characterize dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

A collaboration between the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and the Lookingglass Theater Company, the Memory Ensemble is what organizers believe is a first-of-its-kind program that seeks to improve the quality of life for people dealing with the early stages of memory loss.

The seven-week pilot session is designed to give newly diagnosed participants a “safe and supportive environment where they can challenge themselves but still feel secure,” said Christine Mary Dunford, an ensemble member at Lookingglass Theater.

Ms. Dunford co-founded the Memory Ensemble with Darby Morhardt, director of education and associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Feinberg.

Dozens of creative programs like quilting, painting and ceramics provide patients and their caregivers opportunities to express emotions and, it is theorized, maintain cognitive function for as long as possible.