To an Alzheimer's patient, there's nothing funny about forgetting to turn off the oven, losing a telephone number or misplacing books from the library. But turning those mishaps into punch lines might turn out to be therapeutic.
The idea that improvisational comedy might help those in the early to middle stages of Alzheimer's cope with their disease is being tested by the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company.
Not having to memorize lines or remember a story narrative might spur confidence by freeing patients from worry over lost words or thoughts, and actually stimulate their brain chemistry to forge new protections against further onslaught of the disease, researchers say.
A possible role for creative arts in improving life for those with memory loss is being studied nationwide. In the region, besides Northwestern's Memory Ensemble project, which will continue in the fall, Elmhurst College researchers are looking at whether theater classes have a measurable effect on seniors' brains, and in Northfield, a day services facility is encouraging spontaneous storytelling.
At a recent improv session, skits progressed unexpectedly: A pair of lovers morphed into a mushroom hunting expedition; an ice skating adventure became a camping trip.
"I don't know what I'm doing," one of the performers confided, "but it's freeing."