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Improv Theater Helping People with Alzheimer’s

Mary Beth Roth says the Northwestern University program has helped her husband Wolfgang, who has Alzheimer's Disease. Photo courtesy of ABC's Good Morning America.

Northwestern University researchers are testing whether spur-of-the-moment, improvisational theater could improve the well-being of Alzheimer’s Disease sufferers, according to this news article and audio segment on

National Association of Social Workers member Darby Morhardt, a research associate professor at Northwestern, is taking part in the project. And Mary O’Hara, a social worker at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, is also involved.

“Improv is all about being in the moment, which for someone with memory loss, that is a very safe place,” O’Hara said. “Maybe thinking about the past and trying to remember makes the person a little anxious or even a bit sad because their memory is failing. And maybe thinking about the future too much is also anxiety-provoking. So being in the moment is such a safe and a good place to be.”

Researchers said the improvisational exercises will not stop or slow the progress of Alzheimer’s Disease. However, they could improve the lives of early-stage patients.

“We’re asking people to tell us how they’re feeling about their physical health, their mood,” Morhardt said. “How do they feel about their memory? How did they feel about their family, about their relationships? And also, how do they feel about their current situation as a whole and their life as a whole?”

There are other news articles about the Northwestern University improvisational theater program. Click here to read a recent New York Times article; click here to read an article on on Chicago’s WBEZ91.5 Web site; and click here to read an item on the treatment on ABC’s Good Morning America Website.

To learn more about how social workers help the elderly and people living with mental disorders visit NASW’s “Help Starts Here” consumer Website by clicking here.

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  1. This is a great article! Of course! Working out the brain can help people. Improv is like exercise for the brain. How brilliant! Plus, not to mention the great effects of laughter on people’s neurotransmitters, which increases health! Laughter also increases cardio vascular health! 🙂

  2. Improvisation is about being creative in the moment. This is where Alzheimer/dementia patients spend much of their time. It may not always make sense to the unimpaired caretaker, but this is where the caretaker needs to be spending their time to maximize their understanding, support and stimulation of the dementia patient. I believe that Improvisational Theater has the potential to be a very therapeutic environment for the Alzheimer/dementia patient and that this is valuable work!

  3. I have been working with people who are starting to lose daily thoughts, for 4 years. And I have found using improv moment to moment very helpful, allowing these folks to be spontaneous and part of a team. We will be putting on a show in the downtown Chicago area, Sept. 29, 2015. Hope to hear more from you.
    Thanks Frank Wernet

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