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In high school I played field hockey. In college I decided that I wanted to adopt something else as my “sport”: improv comedy. I loved improv. I still love improv, even though I don’t perform any longer. 

I can honestly say that improv comedy taught me the basics of dementia caregiving, even though I didn’t realize that at the time. Dementia care is all about embracing the other person’s reality, and that’s exactly what you do when you’re in an improv scene with someone. 

We learned a technique (and a game) in improv the first week after auditions. It’s called “Yes, And.” “Yes, And” is a probably more than a technique—it’s more like a rule. (Yes, improv comedy has rules.) “Yes, And” means that you always agree with your scene partner, even if what he or she is saying is completely crazy. Then, you add something valuable to the scene—that’s the “And” part. 

If you step into a scene and your scene partner says, “I love your new couch,” and you respond, “That’s not my new couch, that’s an elephant!” you just killed the scene. The audience is confused, and you’ve ruined your scene partner’s idea. It’s not only rude, it’s just downright wrong.

Dementia care is a lot like a good improv scene. When a resident thinks that her mom is alive, I agree, and then talk to her about her mom’s cooking. When a resident believes that he’s still in college, I agree, and then tell him how much fun I had in school.

“Huh, I guess it’s kind of like one big improv practice,” one of my friends said recently after asking me about work. “You must really love it,” she added.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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