November is Alzheimer’s awareness month! Who knew? Not me before my mother was diagnosed 8 years ago. This is the month the Alzheimer's Association recognizes the more than 11 million family members and friends who are currently caring for a person living with Alzheimer's nationwide.
People often ask me how I had the idea to bring comedians to people facing Alzheimer’s. I always respond by saying it had to do with the courage I saw the caregivers exhibit.
When you’re a comic non-pro’s will say, “Stand up is the hardest thing to do, that takes so much courage, I could never do that!” Really? Stand up is the hardest thing? Yes it takes courage, but It’s like an hour – three tops and you go back to your hotel, eat a pint of Häagen-Dazs and pass out.
Showing up to care for someone in cognitive decline to my mind is next level courage. Coming to work every day not knowing what mood or mental state you are going to face, not to mention the potential physical challenges. But it is the same muscle - caregiver courage is comedian courage on steroids. I also knew that many comedians are fearless in facing the tough stuff of life. At the time, I didn’t know there was a whole parallel universe of comedians who also cared for an aging grandparent or parent or ran activities in senior communities. There are many.
Turns out that in addition to courage, there are aspects of being a comedian that can be helpful for caregivers. I love to introduce “letting go of the moment before,” from my UCLA class to those on the frontlines of Alzheimer’s. Comedians know if a joke bombs you have to let it go so you can get to the next one which might succeed. What many don't know is that as people lose rational thought, their moods can become mercurial. Like a veteran comic, you figure out you can’t invest too much in any one moment because you will exhaust yourself. There were many moments where my mother looked terribly angry and I would turn away for a minute upset and then look back seconds later and she’d be smiling and waving to someone. If I kept ruminating about her previous mood, I would have missed the chance to enjoy the next one with her.
Two other comedians' tools that come to mind are responding authentically, not pretending something isn’t happening, and timing. I didn’t go to business school but I do like using the vernacular here, breaking down timing to macro and micro. Macro timing in caregiving refers to the bigger issues, when to take the keys away, when to get help, when to move the person. Micro timing here has more to do with the day-to-day actions – when to do the most difficult tasks like bathing and when to have visitors to set friends up for a successful visit so they come back.
Another tool that I talk a lot about that is more grounded in Improv than Stand-up and particularly timely this month is appreciation. Expressing appreciation for those who help you allows people feel seen and heard and it's free!
The double-diamond of appreciation - to use a skiing term since I am writing this from upstate New York, is expressing appreciation for ourselves. I’m a big fan of bullet-pointed lists. Making two lists, one for things you appreciate about others and one list about yourself goes a long way toward having a happier day. Not necessarily the stuff of comedy, but I think that’s okay. Sensitive times call for sensitive actions.
In recognition of Alzheimer’s Awareness month, I am going to make a point to express more appreciation for the generous souls who care for those affected by Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Their courage, resilience and heart are the best of human character and deserve more than thirty days of acclaim. November is a great month to recognize these heroes, but no need to stop there.