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Improvisation as Caregiving Technique

Improvisation as Caregiving Technique

Life is rarely linear. We imagine and try to impose order, but really who are we kidding? When my children were young I always felt as though I were improvising. Sometimes it seemed I was in a sweet spot and no matter the complexities things would just turn out right, other times not so much. And there were those perfect storm days that felt like unmitigated disaster. 

Reading Michelle Woo's How to Parent like an Improv Actor  I realized there are some great lessons here for those of us caring for older adults. 

Don’t fear silence 

Andrea Wetherald, an improv coach says, 

"One of my favorite lessons as an improviser is that silence is not an emergency. It’s okay to take a moment to have an authentic response instead of just saying the first thing that comes into your head." This can be essential advice when caregiving. There are so many out of your control moments and instead of an immediate reaction, pause take even one deep breath before responding - allow some time for silence. Knowing that silence is not an emergency has taught Andrea  "to give more thoughtful, more kind answers." Kind Answers are a lovely reward for trusting silence. 

Drop your agenda

Nate Smith, an Improv teacher at the Curious Comedy Theater says, 

"We always have an agenda with our kids, especially during bedtime. Our bedtime routine is a surgically precise itinerary. See if you can "drop your agenda. Calling on his improv training  Nate allows himself to “enter the scene.” Dropping the agenda and just listening can help you help the person your are caring for. There are often tasks that have to be done, just like getting a child to bed, but they may be done with more ease and humor if you let the person you are caring for take the lead. It is not always practical or possible to "drop the agenda" but when you can it can make accomplishing tasks lighter for both care giver and the person they are caring for!

Reflect rather than Define

Aretha Sills, Associate Director of the Sills/Spolin Theater Works 

Aretha's grandmother Viola Spolin is considered the mother of improvisational theater. " Viola Spolin talked about an idea called “Follow the Follower" ,which comes out of a game called “Mirror.” In “Mirror,” there are two players facing each other—one player is the initiator and the other player mirrors them from head to toe. The goal is to get an exact mirror reflection so it’s as if the players are in the same moment together. You call “Change!” and then the initiator becomes the mirror. Then, at a certain point, you call “Follow the follower!” where no one is initiating but both are reflecting. You suddenly notice, oh, they’re blinking and breathing and then you start blinking and breathing and you reflect each other."

When no-one- is-initiating is a powerful concept for a caregiver. It almost always feels as though there is a need or desire that arises from the cared for and the care giver is there to act or react.

Ms. Sills says: "In scene improvisation, people come in and they think conflict is really a great way to generate material, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Something has to transform for a scene to be created between two people in the present time, and “follow the follower,” the idea of reflecting each other, somehow allows that to happen." By reflecting you can better understand the feelings of the person you are caring for and this will help you both. 

Embrace ‘Yes, and’

Ms. Wetherald says: 

“Yes, and” is the most fundamental concept of being willing to collaborate with the people around you because you view them as equals and because you view their ideas—even if you don’t fully understand them yet—as inherently worth your time and creative energy to build with."

"Yes and" can get you moving through a difficult spot with an older person who is struggling with memory issues or is adamant and seems immovable. Acknowledging their wishes and point of view with positivity even if you can't act on it exactly as planned.

 The truth is that no matter how hard we try to plan, schedule organize and impose order our job as caregivers will always be to do the best we can in any given moment, spontaneously prepared or not!


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