By Tiana Kennell, The Shreveport Times
Shreveport, LA (AP) – The first rule of improvisation – or improv – is to say `yes’ and accept with every situation thrown the actor’s way.
Rita Davis isn’t an actor but finds the rule of agreement applies when tending to her husband, Travis.
More than a decade ago, Travis was diagnosed with severe dementia, which has affected his memory, physical and mental abilities.
“I have to improvise ways to take care of him, handle him or cajole him into doing things,’’ Rita said. “It’s a lot like acting. I have to set up scenarios to get him to do things.’’
The couple married more than 34 years ago. After Travis’ diagnosis, she became his primary caregiver. It’s stressful at times, she said, so she sought relief in The Glen Retirement System’s Caregivers’ Memory Loss Support Group.
The members discuss personal matters, share advice, and provide empathy and understanding to other attendees. Each month, special guests are invited to offer expertise, information and assistance.
Rita will further learn how to use improv acting techniques to manage interactions with her husband.
“Improv theater is a very spontaneous performance, without a script, and we don’t have any lines to memorize,’’ actress Mary Joris said. “The caregiver – who would be the actor in this case – has to follow the scenario of the person who has this horrendous brain disease.’’
Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms are different for each person, but often affect memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning, according to The Mayo Clinic. The person may experience episodes of memory loss and confusing details, places and time.
Lydia Earhart, support group leader, researched the benefits of improv use in support groups nationwide and found the results were favorable, she said. So she invited local, professional actors to teach the caregivers the art of “living in the moment.’’
“A lot of (caregivers) are making it up as they go,’’ Earhart said. “It’s difficult to follow a certain formula when all of the cases of dementia are not specific or set in stone.’’
At mealtime, Rita uses a creative approach to persuade her husband to drink his nutritional milkshake. She begins a game with sitting Travis in a chair and draping him with a large towel.
“I tell him he has to have it on – it’s his tablecloth – and if he spills his milkshake I’ll have to call the sheriff’s department and they’ll send Rin Tin Tin or Batman or whatever,’’ Davis said. “I’m playing with him, I’m improvising and turning it into something funny – like a child would – in order to get his attitude in the right frame of mind. Otherwise, he might get angry and agitated.’’
Travis’ case of dementia has caused loss of memory and speech, Rita said. He’s unable to perform tasks once simple for him.
“I have to be his voice because he has no voice,’’ Rita said. “I took him to the eye doctor and with no voice, he can’t even read an eye chart. There’s an awful lot of things you don’t think about until you become the caregiver.’’
Over the years, Rita’s responsibilities as a caregiver have weighed heavily causing her to struggle with stress and depression, she said.
“I had a real small spell of depression recently and I know that it was `caregiver’s stress,’’’ Davis said. “I got over it in about four days because I can’t function with him like that. It’s kind of like taking care of a child, except when you’re taking care of a child you can make them do something – you can’t always make a grown man do something.’’
Four years ago, the Davis’ relocated from Beaumont, Texas to Shreveport into an apartment at The Glen. On campus, they can live together with Travis close to the medical assistance he requires.
Davis found comfort for herself by attending the Caregivers Memory Loss Support Group meetings, which meets 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. every first Thursday of the month.
Meetings are free to attend and open to the community members who are caregivers or family members of a person diagnosed with a memory loss disease. Attendees do not have to be residents of The Glen.
“We learn from each other. Dementia doesn’t have the same effects on patients,’’ Rita said. “We learn ways to cope with certain things or websites we can go to. It’s been very beneficial.’’
Occasionally, meetings will feature other interactive and creative practices, such as art, music and pet therapy, Earhart said. A mission of the support group is to provide stress relief, information and comfort as a united front.
“Know there is support out there in the community and reach out for that support,’’ Earhart said. “A lot of times caregivers feel they’re alone. The Glen does a great job of working with people and letting them know they’re not alone.’’