Callier Students Learn How Improv Skills Can Improve Dementia Care

From left: UT Dallas graduate students Haley Forrest, Caitlyn Neudeck, Avriel Medina, Houda Saleh, Nehal Parikh and Jenny Li participate in an improv exercise during a workshop that helps relieve stress between dementia patients and their caregivers.

Diane Walsh knows firsthand — both professionally and personally — that caring for those with dementia can be difficult.

The senior lecturer in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas supervises students working in a clinical setting at a day center for dementia patients, and one of her relatives battled Alzheimer’s disease.

So when the opportunity came for her graduate students at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders to learn a therapeutic, improvisational comedy-based method that can help relieve stress for both patients and caregivers, Walsh jumped at the chance.

“My summer class at Callier for future speech-language pathologists provides an overview of different types of dementia and then focuses on the role of clinicians in providing appropriate services,” she said. “A good deal of that is educating partners on how communication changes for these patients and how caregivers can best deal with the ensuing challenges.”

Those with dementia often struggle with remembering and understanding their situations. Stomping Ground Comedy Theater, a Dallas-based improv comedy troupe, offers classes to help caregivers of those with dementia. Through exercises and games, participants learn to focus more on the moment.

Andrea Baum, a licensed professional counselor and program director for Improv for Life at Stomping Ground, said caregivers need to be good listeners and should go with the flow.

Andrea Baum, program director for Improv for Life at Stomping Ground Comedy Theater, teaches UT Dallas students techniques for working with dementia patients.

“Caregivers need to step into the world of the person they are caring for and connect with them. The caregiver should say ‘yes’ to the reality of the world that the person with dementia is in, and then add information,” she said.

At the Stomping Ground workshop, UT Dallas students participated in exercises centered on the challenges faced by those with dementia.

In one exercise, participants had to think clearly while quickly passing objects to one another. The confusion that followed demonstrated the sensory overload that dementia patients must manage.

“In real life, that could be sounds — an air conditioning unit, someone asking a question or music playing in the background. These types of things can cause patients to become extremely disoriented, causing difficult behaviors,” Baum said.

In another exercise, participants had to say “yes” to the reality presented to them by someone else. Baum said if a patient believes something that may not be true, the best response is to validate him or her and then add more information to diffuse the situation.

“Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for us to step into their world,” Baum said. “But instead of correcting their reality, there is less stress and difficult behaviors if we go along to some extent and then add information that can redirect them to another topic.”

Caitlyn Neudeck, a communication disorders graduate student who participated in the workshop, said the “yes” strategy for dementia care makes a lot of sense.

“This approach lets them dictate where they are, who they are, and what they want to be that day, rather than telling them who and what they’re going to be that day,” she said. “It lets them have a semblance of independence, even if we’re not going to let them get a driver’s license, buy a car or invest in a company. We’re going to give them the idea that while that is something that maybe they could do, let’s talk about it, and then we’ll flip the script and talk about something else.”

Communication disorders graduate student Molly Gunn said the strategies promote more positive interactions.

“It creates a better experience for the caregiver as well as the person with dementia because you’re not frustrated, and they’re not frustrated,” she said. “I think it avoids conflict while bringing general joy and happiness within that relationship, which is important.”

Thanks to a recent grant, Stomping Ground will offer free workshops to caregivers of dementia patients in 2020 and 2021.

UT Dallas graduate students get a better understanding of the challenges that dementia patients face during one of the exercises at the Stomping Ground Comedy Theater workshop.

Media Contact: Phil Roth, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2193, [email protected] , or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].