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Alzheimers No Barrier to Creation: Theater Bypasses Memory with Unique Program at Augustana Open Circle

April 15, 2016

Cool cats, pet rats and a young man who is nervous about flying may seem a little disjointed—but put them all together and they make quite a story. That’s what older adults discovered recently at Augustana Open Circle, which provides adult day services to members with Alzheimer’s and other conditions. The story was created in partnership with CLIMB theater, which has significant experience helping older adults create theatrical experiences that don’t depend on memory.

A grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board enabled Augustana Open Circle to employ Suzanne Cross and Zachary Kulzer, two actors and improvisation experts from CLIMB. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the actors asked Open Circle members to come up with a “first”—such as the first time he or she danced, flew on a plane, and so on. Suddenly, a member recalled the first time she had a pet—which turned out to be a pet rat.

CLIMB Theater performers work with Augustana Open Circle members to create funny, engaging plays. The plays are created through improvisation, which does not depend on memory and is therefore a perfect tool for those with memory issues.Cross and Kulzer looked at each other, and in that glance it was evident they believed the rat and airplane were the seeds of an outrageously amusing story. The actors spend a lot of time thinking about how to inspire older adults to create theatrical experiences through improvisation, costumes and imagery. This spring, Cross and Kulzer are leading ten improvisational sessions and will lead ten more in fall at Open Circle locations in Apple Valley, Hopkins and Minneapolis.

On this particular day, Augustana Open Circle members were given costumes and roles—two pet rats, the young man on the plane, and a “cool cat” guy trying to “catch” the young man. The result was a scene that got participants roaring. It included one rat that recommended his owner have a stiff drink while another advised the young man to steal the cool cat’s hat. Once that happened, the cool cat withdrew, leaving the young man and rats with a happy ending.

After the scene was over, participants said they liked listening to each other laugh and watching the story come together. A staff member noticed how one gentleman became completely engaged and alert—and how this is not typical for him. “This experience reminds me that we are never done being creative,” says Cross. “Don’t think that because you have a disability or memory loss you can’t communicate! It simply isn’t true.”

Augustana Open Circle Program Director Mark Rosen is especially excited about the program because many Augustana Open Circle members live with some form of dementia. Remembering details and words can lead to communications challenges and frustration.

The imaginative nature of theater allows them to sidestep this frustration and enjoy meaningful connections with others. To maximize the number of people served, CLIMB will also conduct a one-day training to teach Open Circle staff how to use theatre techniques to create stories.

Training will take place this spring so staff has the opportunity to co-facilitate several sessions with CLIMB during both spring and fall sessions. This will provide employees with the hands-on experience and mentorship they need to conduct the program without CLIMB in the future.

To learn more or attend a session, please contact Jenna at jjzark@augustanacare.org or 612-238-8552.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.