By following the rules of improvisation, one family finds love and humor within the wilderness of dementia.


The episode “Magic Words” aired last month on This American Life and in it you’ll hear “Rainy Days and Mondys,” the story of Karen Stobbe, her husband Mondy, and her mother Virginia, who recently moved into their house because she has dementia.

The story pretty much speaks for itself on a grace-in-practice level, but to provide a little set-up: As soon as Virginia moves into the house, Karen and Mondy begin wondering all the common questions people in their situation have: what sorts of things can you do with those who have dementia? What questions can you ask? How do you respond to their bewilderment? How do you keep them safe? What Karen and Mondy found, to their surprise, was how naturally their method came. By simply being themselves—which just so happened to be improv actors—they found the best way to relate to Virginia was by using a rule of thumb for improvisation: “Step into their world.”

“Step into their world.” “Always say yes, never say no.” “Always accept a gift.” “Let others define themselves.” On so many levels and in so many kinds of relationships, these rules for improvisation sound more like the broader characteristics of Christian charity than the blueprint for patient care. And yet, at the same time, for an Alzheimer’s patient, stepping into that world means stepping into the wilderness of confusion and distrust. Rather than coercing reason, rather than pushing the prerogative to see things a certain way, this method moves into the wilderness with that person, and accompanies them there.

I love the example Karen gives about “wanting to go home.” Correcting her mother by saying “Well, this is your home now,” not only fails to sympathize with her, but it also calls her a liar. Instead, Karen can enter her mother’s world by saying, “Yea, tell me about your home.”

The real kicker is the end, isn’t it? This also reminds me of Take Shelter, how not only is “acting” difficult at times, but caregiving in this way involves an actual divestment of one’s own memories. How difficult, when the person for whom you are caregiver is also the person with whom you’ve shared these memories! Rather than reclaim your stake in their lives, you must accept the loss and operate in the present. That is one of the natural laws of improvisation (and grace-based ministry, too, for that matter).

If you’re interested in reading more about this method with Alzheimer’s patients, or you want to pass on more information, Karen’s website for her organization, In the Moment, is here.

And–need I say?–there’s always more gospel gems in the TAL archives.