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People with dementia ready to stand up and deliver


Sharlene King
16 August 2011
Can taking part in stand-up comedy performances have therapeutic effects on people with dementia? A new and innovative Southern Cross University research project is investigating the link, in partnership with an aged care provider and a comedian.

Associate Professor John Stevens from the University’s School of Health and Human Sciences, Baptist Community Services NSW & ACT (BCS) and local comedian Mandy Nolan have received a $47,528 federal government Community Dementia grant to rollout the ‘Stand up for dementia: performance and humour as recreation and therapy’ project over the next six months as part of an ongoing dementia community service at the BCS Care Centre at Alstonville, near Ballina, on the New South far north coast.

Associate Professor John Stevens said the research would build on the results of a pilot program run in August last year that his wife, Mandy Nolan, facilitated.

“After a few sessions we were seeing these participants with dementia becoming a cohesive social group laughing and enjoying each other’s company,” said Professor Stevens.

“But what was striking, individuals were starting to remember lines and routines from week to week. This is not expected from people with dementia.

“One woman, in particular, with severe short term memory problems, hadn’t spoken in two years. But relatives were gobsmacked when they came to the final performance concert to see her up on the stage performing and laughing.”

BCS community services manager Tarnya Daniels said her organisation was excited about the research partnership.

“Baptist Community Services NSW & ACT is committed to improving the lives of older Australians,” said Ms Daniels.

“We received overwhelming positive responses from clients, carers and family members. Our clients were having a wonderful time filling the room with laughter and enjoying the role plays and feeling a sense of belonging within the group. We saw a therapeutic benefit not only for the clients but for carers as well.”

The project will seek to understand why performance-based humour activities have a therapeutic effect.

“One theory is perhaps the laughter is reducing inflammation within the brain that allows pathways to open up to memory again,” said Professor Stevens.

“Or perhaps it’s because we’re tapping into older memories of characters from when they were younger. Whatever is happening the outcomes are extraordinary.”

Mandy Nolan teaches comedy to people of all ages, but she too was surprised by how well people with dementia responded.

“People with dementia live in the moment so they’re very good at improvisation. I adapted the comedy routines to be theatre sports based, using role plays and tapping into people’s history and life stories. Instantly everyone’s laughing and engaged,” Ms Nolan said.

“I think when you have dementia you spend a lot of time improvising in life because that’s how you survive. It’s actually their strongest skill.

"They’re sometimes better than a group without dementia because the loss of inhibition is appropriate for the kind of exercises I do. The more uninhibited you are the better you’ll be.”

The funding allows for two eight-week workshops in stand-up comedy, improvisation and performance for people with mild to moderate dementia. The participants are existing community care clients of BCS and other service providers.

At the same time, Ms Nolan is developing and delivering a train-the-trainers program for future facilitators of the ‘Stand up for dementia’ program.

“The aim is for anyone with experience in working with people with dementia and a theatrical or performance background to take this respite care activity more widely into the community,” she said.
Photo: Standing up for dementia are Associate Professor John Stevens, comedian Mandy Nolan and Baptist Community Services’ Tarnya Daniels