Improv for All-Timers and at All-Times


Even before I realized Babci’s memories were leaving her for far off lands, I heard an incredible segment on an episode of This American Life (532: Magic Words) over the summer.

It was a story of a couple living with their mother, who was living with Alzheimer’s.

The story was wrought with challenge – it’s tough to see someone you love, the person who raised you, who you always looked up to, who always took care of you, not only no longer able to take care of themselves, but to forget you.

You who now are taking care of them.

When you’ve shared so many memories over the years – people and places, food and fun, ups and downs, and many more – how could they forget? They meant so much to both of you.

And sometimes the strangest things come out of their mouths. Something crazy if not just plain wrong!

Who wants to hear all the time how they can’t remember anything? How wrong they are? This isn’t the way to do that! Why can’t you …?

Though it must only get harder when the person who you are working so hard to be so patient with shows no recollection of, nor patience with, you.

But what if you took whatever they had to say at face value?

What if you went with the flow and joined them where they were, with what they were doing? (How ’bout those monkeys!)

What if you believed what they were telling you, as much as they believed it themselves?

Sometimes we budget the least amount of patience to those closest to us, especially when we assume they should know something or do something or [______] something.

But it’s not just with our loved ones with Alzheimer’s that we do this with. Nor just our loved ones.

It’s easy to do this with the many we people know and many others we don’t.

Improv is about responding in the moment, not reacting.

It’s about going with the flow. It’s about laughing, a lot. It’s about not being afraid to make a mistake and not pointing a finger at others when they falter.

In fact, mistakes don’t exist. It’s all just a matter of circumstance.

What was just said? What was just done? How will we respond? What will we do next? How does the scene end up in the end?

We could just as easily put a negative bend on the above questions as we could a positive one.

But the spirit of improv is about opening our mind to possibilities. Testing out unknown waters. Believing you (and those with you) can. And always giving it another go.

What if we embraced improv in our daily lives? How might your life and the lives of others be enhanced with a slightly different mindset and approach?

What might it take for you to start to share the improv love at home*?


Karen Stobbe (Karen from the 20 minute episode, which is definitely worth a listen) offers workshops on how to use the tools of improv with people who have dementia. She also has this interesting .pdf on the Parallels of Alzheimer’s and Improvisation.

*Karen also introduced me to this quote via her website in the moment:

“It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.” – Mother Teresa

Today I Google’d “Alzheimer’s” and found the photo you see above.

The article is actually from and encourages us to take action on Alzheimer’s. It even links to the 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s page that I saw on a commercial last night.


All-Timers with Alzheimer’s


My Grandmother, we call her Babci (bop-chee: bop rhymes with top; chee as in cheese), has dementia.

Babci and I had lunch today at Friendly’s in Utica*. It was strange and wonderful all at once.

And it made me wonder whether all lunches should end with a sundae with a cherry on top. Senior citizens really know how to live it up 🙂

Living away in China for the years that I did, I missed quite a few family moments. And now that I’m back in the US, I’ve done my best to join in for as many as possible. This is one of those moments.

There’s a lot that Babci forgets these days. But that’s okay. I forget a lot of things too.

Though since her 90th birthday back in March, it’s incredible how quickly, and noticeably, Babci’s mental state has declined.

It’s stunning, actually. I was so impressed at her birthday party. A 90-year old woman, still very much on top of her game.

But these days she has no idea who I am. She doesn’t remember my sister, or any of her other grandkids.

In fact, given our lunchtime conversation today, she doesn’t even remember my Mother – someone who calls and comes out to see her regularly. She remembers her son, but doesn’t seem to always call him by name. Carol (my Aunt) seems to be the last remaining name her memory bank.

I suppose it makes sense. They live just around the corner from each other and see each other daily.

Actually, over the past few months, you wouldn’t believe the number of times Babci has described to me how to get from her house to or from Aunt Carol’s.

But she describes it well, and I don’t mind hearing it. It’s a beautiful thing to see how her face lights up each time she makes the final zag with her fingers, “…and we’re there!”

So many of us take our memory for granted.

Babci seems to be extremely proud of these things she remembers well – like how to get between her and Carol’s house or stories like the one about how she and Grandpa (Dziadziu) moved into their place on Noyes Street. We reviewed that she’s been living in her house for 63 years at least 3 times today.

What if we treated our memory like a gift rather than a given?

What if we were a bit more understanding when someone re-told us a story that excited them, even if we’d heard it before?

What if we were a bit more understanding when someone that mattered to us forgot about something that mattered to us?

What can we learn from interacting with the people closest to us with dementia / Alzheimer’s that we can apply to all the other people in our lives who have moments of forgetfulness?

Memory is still very much a mystery to me. And parts of me wish that I could remember more than I do. But, you know what, my grandmother no longer remembers who I am. And that’s okay with me.

Today may have been Babci’s and my last supper.

Over the course of 90 minutes we had the same conversation a handful of times. Many of the same questions from her. And I did my best to improv with my answers.

But we laughed. A lot.

She may not remember what we talked about five minutes ago – along with all the other stuff – but she sure hasn’t forgotten her sense of humor, to laugh at herself, or to crack a joke.

Though today Babci didn’t need her memory to remind me of one of the all-time greatest lessons I’ve learned about compassion.

Is it more important to remember and be right or to remember to be who the other person needs you to be in that moment?

And laugh, as much as you can. Because when all else is lost, we’re never lost in laughter.


*For all of you playing the Upstate NY game [*ahem*, Camille], Utica is in Central NY.

Today’s image came from the google search “memory” and the UCLA Longevity Center’s Memory Training page.