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How Improv Keeps You Sharp as You Age

happy smiling laughing senior woman peeking from behind mask

Not Just for Laughs

“Improv” stands for improvisational theater, , an unscripted performance created spontaneously by the performers. Dialogue, action, story, and characters are made up on the spot as the performers take an idea and build on it together. While improv is usually seen on a theater stage in a comedy club, its skills and practices have popped up in other settings such as schools and the workplace. Senior living communities appreciate the creative and health benefits of improv too. 


Improv for Seniors

In 2009, Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center launched an improvisational theater program for seniors called The Memory Ensemble. It was a response to the lack of programs designed specifically for people with early-stage memory loss. Because a person with early cognitive decline is usually still physically able, the program developers  felt that improv could provide a challenging and stimulating learning environment.

Preliminary results showed that early-stage Alzheimer’s patients experienced health benefits of improv, including “feelings of success and empowerment,” and an improved quality of life. It gave them a sense of “meaning, purpose, confidence and efficacy — and [it can] potentially decrease depression.”


Improv raises the curtain on:

Mental Health

Improv is about being in the moment and being spontaneous. With no right or wrong answers, and no memorization needed, seniors who take part in an improv class are free to use their imaginations. They connect with each other and respond in the moment, ad-libbing and tossing back and forth wonderful ideas with their collaborators. A mental health benefit of improv is that it keeps seniors in the present, where missing memories and future worries have no footing.  

Social Health

While improv classes rely on quick thinking and responses, even if a person becomes momentarily confused or loses track of what’s going on, the group just accepts it and goes with it. The social health benefit of improv stems from the support everyone willingly provides in this stimulating environment. It relieves some of the stress and isolation that seniors with dementia feel. Residents come out of a class feeling positive and upbeat, with plenty to talk about.


What happens during an improv class?

Improv classes at Westminster Place encourage residents to exercise their creativity and wit. They’re kept on their toes as they keep their brains active and stay socially engaged. For residents with mild memory loss, the playful sessions are a fun way to connect with others.  

An improv class usually starts with a warmup, where residents take part in physical and vocal exercises to loosen their limbs and get their creativity flowing. They might throw each other an invisible ball, flowing with the movement and shouting out a word as they catch it. They may toss out a word and form sentences. They then move on to typical improv games, such as building a funny scene based on a third-person suggestion. Each person in the scene is constantly creating — using their active listening skills and imagination to work as a team.

The basic rules of improv are simple. As a scene evolves, residents:

o   Say “yes.”

o   Add on to what is proposed: “Yes, and …”

o   Come up with a statement, regardless of how kooky it is.

o   Work with what others say and the props available, knowing there are no mistakes.

o   Support and applaud everyone’s input.


Putting Seniors in the Spotlight

Sometimes seniors feel that they become invisible as they age, and their need to be seen, heard and listened to is ignored. This is never the case at Westminster Place. We’re passionate about helping seniors of every age and ability find their place in the spotlight. Whether it’s through the health benefits of improv and other creative arts or a customized care plan, we help older adults thrive and grow. Learn more — call 847-570-3422 today.