“Improvising Memory Loss,” with Pam Nolte ’76

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. Im your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Pam Nolte, co-founder, actor, and teaching artist at Taproot Theatre Company. She has been teaching improv classes to Alzheimers patients since 2010. Not only has this work been rewarding for Pam, but her students have also been experiencing incredible results. Pam, thank you so much for joining us today.

Pam Nolte: Amanda, thank you for having me. This is a story I love to talk about, a program I love to talk about.

Amanda: Well, how did the program get started?

Pam: Oddly enough, a woman who was the facilitator for the memory loss class up at Greenwood Senior Center, so right up the street from Taproot Theatre Company, had a student who said, Can we do some improv? So Mary Grace Becker contacted me. She already knew me, and said, Pam, do you think Taproot would do a class for us in improv, for our memory loss teachers or our students.

And I said, Mary Grace, I dont have a clue what you were talking about. So we sat down, had a cup of coffee, and I got excited about just hearing that this existed because my mother had passed with Alzheimers when she was just 73 years old. So at that point, this was news to me. And I said, This is not something that I can say yes to, but I can take it back to Taproot and see if the leadership will get excited about it too.

And thats exactly what happened was through Taproot Theatre Companys leadership saying yes, this program began in 2011 with the memory loss program there at the Greenwood Senior Center, and has continued to grow since then. So many community centers at this point, retirement centers and different individual speaking-type opportunities where were talking about the program have occurred since then. Its exciting work.

Amanda: Well, lets talk just a minute about what an improv class is. I think a lot of people, due to some shows that are on TV, people have had exposure to late-night comedy improv where you get a suggestion and then they make things up. But one thing I think a lot of people dont understand is you still have to practice. You still have to rehearse. And a team spends a lot … The more time they rehearse, the better they are at improvising. So what kinds of things happen in an improv class?

Pam: So youre talking about a totally different style of improv. This would be more like learning how to do improv. And so if there was a class at Taproot Theatre that Rob Martin, my co-teacher in this program was doing, he would be doing many of the same games with our memory loss students that he would be teaching the high school students in his class. But what we do with improv is we use the same memories that we use as actors to spark creativity and reignite the mind. For actors to create characters, to bring to life different situations. Were talking about distant past, were talking about emotional memories, and were talking about procedural memories or muscle memory. So if we say in a class, were going to take an adventure today, where should we go? Because theyre going to be the ones that are leading. Theyre going to toss out suggestions.

How are we going to go? Were going to ride a bike. Well, even though those individuals may not have ridden a bike in decades, if we say, okay, everyone hop on your bikes, they are going to be throwing their legs over that bike, hopping onto that bike saddle, putting their hands onto the handlebars, because thats distant past memory. And all of a sudden weve got a free-for-all. It might be a bicycle race that all of a sudden is happening. Now, these obviously are in-person improv classes, but were always tossing out, following what are they tossing out and moving into whats coming next. But that starts with games. When we get to that kind of free-for-all imagination moment, we start with games that basically, first of all, reignite their muscles. Because with memory loss, with any elderly situation, just getting the body moving is essential.

So we start with a lot of movement, whether thats music and dance or movement or different games that are a tag-type thing, pre-COVID, of course. Different sorts of things that just get the body going, that gets the brain going. Then we move on to things that actually reignite the senses. Smell, sight, touch, taste. We might be going on an adventure. We might choose something if its a Seattle class where were going through a walk through the arboretum and what do you see? What do you smell? What do you …, and that might turn into some kind of an outrageous picnic where all of a sudden were taking a rocket ship to the moon because someone got excited about, Oh, I want to go someplace else. Where should we go? Well, lets load on. But theyre the ones that are leading it. So thats where the improv is. We guide as teachers until they take it to the next dimension.

Amanda: Well, and what you just said is really the heart of improv. The yes and.

Pam: The yes and.

Amanda: The only thing you can do wrong in an improv class is say, no.

Pam: Thats correct. There was no wrong answer.

Amanda: Theres no wrong answer.

Pam: And its all in the moment. Thats why its so good for individuals with memory loss. Its all in the moment. They dont have to remember what they had for breakfast to be able to have an incredible improv adventure with our Taproot classes. Its just you might say, Whats your favorite breakfast cereal? Theyll know. Theyll know exactly what it is, and theyll tell you stories about it. So depending on how much time you want to spend, the type of class that it is, you can have great fun with … whoa, if you were going to eat that on Mars, what would it look like? What would it taste like? What would it sound … I mean, all of those different guide things, but it is because its in the moment that theres no such thing as a wrong answer that really, the more playful the comment is, the more fun it is for the group. And at that point, everyone walks away with just this amazing sense of, I was just in a theatre class and I was really good. In fact, those with memory loss are often better in class than those that, if a care partner comes, those that are the care partners or the paid caregivers. Because in Western society, we tend to overthink everything. Well, individuals with memory loss are not generally overthinking. What theyre doing is jumping into the moment. They are the best improv actors.

“[I]n Western society, we tend to overthink everything. Well, individuals with memory loss are not generally overthinking. What theyre doing is jumping into the moment. They are the best improv actors.”

Amanda: Thats amazing. Thats amazing. And Im sort of taking that the next step in my mind and thinking part of the reason that people with memory loss start to withdraw from others is because of that embarrassment of maybe I started a sentence and I forgot where I was going. Or I used the wrong word for something. And yet, here we are in improv theres not only, is there nothing wrong with that, thats okay. Thats actually encouraged. I said the wrong word, but were going to go with that word. Theres no going back and fixing it.

Pam: One of the games that we do that I absolutely love, that starts in that waking up the muscles is, What part of the body do you want to stretch today, Amanda? Lets do it together. Amanda, youve been talking for a while. What part of your body needs a stretch? Go ahead and tell me.

Amanda: My ankle.

Pam: Okay, now, Amanda out there in this boring street in front of me, they would call that an ankle. But lets come up with a better word for that. What would be something that would just be a really fun word for ankle?

Amanda: A crinklefarb.

Pam: A crinklefarb. So were going to stretch our crinklefarb in class at the moment, and Amanda, would you show us what that stretch looks like?

Amanda: Im now stretching my crinklefarb.

Pam: Oh my gosh. That is amazing, Amanda. And so we would do that as a group. You start immediately with nonsense and laughter and a body stretch that is getting that body warmed up. And if youve got Parkinsons in the class, all of those things are critical to not just waken the body up for fun, but also for safety in a class.

Amanda: And then immediately, everyone there is a part of the group. Whereas you can imagine that day in and day out, the worst part of going through memory loss is feeling distant from, and not being a part of the group. And then right off the bat, theyre all being included.

Pam: And they realize that the sillier and funnier it is the more fun they have. So you just immediately de-stress the brain. And yeah, we should all be doing improv every single morning. Wake up and say, I think I need to stretch my patootie this morning and just give it a good stretch and start the day with a laugh.

Amanda: Well, we all need to be in the moment more.

Pam: Yes.

Amanda: So much more. We had this conversation before we pushed record that Ive, Ive always thought that every, I dont know what age, whether its elementary, junior, high, high school, that improv should be part of the regular curriculum because this is something we have to do every day in our lives. We have these pivotal moments like job interviews where were not sure what were going to be asked, and we can be prepared, but only to a certain extent. And being able to be in the moment and use our whole self in the moment instead of being so scared about what comes next. I mean, we all need that.

Pam: Yes, we do.

Amanda: We all need that.

Pam: Yes, we do. When we ask our students at the beginning of class, how many of you have done improv before? Or how many of you have seen improv done before? A few hands will go up, but most not familiar with it. And well say, did you get up and make a decision what cereal you wanted in your bowl this morning? Yes. Well, that was an improv moment. Did you go to your closet and make a set of choices on what am I going to wear today? That was an improv spur-of-the-moment choice. So getting them into a realm of, oh, I do have to make spur-of-the-moment choices. And youre absolutely right when you and I were talking, its like, boy, in public speaking, how often does something go wrong?

“That was an improv spur-of-the-moment choice. So getting them into a realm of, oh, I do have to make spur-of-the-moment choices.”

Amanda: Almost always.

Pam: Technology. Thats one of the things we were talking about. I mean, it always goes wrong. And someone has to fill in and make it good. Theres nothing more fun than listening to a speaker who flubs something and then turns it into a great story. Its why we love seeing an actor trip on a rug in the middle of a stage performance and immediately go back and fix the rug and make a little chit chat or do something with it, but then stay right with the script. Its an improv moment. You take it, you go with it, and then you move right on. Its exciting to see people improvise with the moments that happen in life.

Amanda: So in your classes with your memory loss patients, do you see … I mean in the moment, its good for them in the moment, but do you actually see progress? Do you actually see them waking up in ways that they werent doing back at their residence?

Pam: What we do, most of these are early-stage memory loss classes. When we started the Taproot class, and those beginning ones were up at the senior center. When we started the Taproot class, individuals were progressing out of that particular program because of the design of that beautiful program. But they were part of this incredible family that occurs, and many of them doing improv together. And we decided theres no reason that they cant still do improv. And thats whats been beautiful is to see that its not only available to the early-stage memory loss. The mid-stage memory loss individuals that are experiencing that level can still join in, have a grand time, be part of that quality of life. When we start a class, we ask, how are you feeling today? Are you ready for improv? We ask a really, really simple number, scale 1, 2, 3.

One, Im really, Im really not looking forward to this, or Im just not doing very well today. Two might be Im here, Im here. Three is I am here, and I am so looking forward to it. So we end up with outcomes that are pretty simple because were talking with people that are experiencing memory loss, and almost without exception, whether those are early-stage or mid-stage, they are coming in at a lower number than they are exiting with. Even if they come in as a one thumb up, theyre two thumbs up by the time they are leaving. Just to go, how do I get this higher? And both thumbs go up. Because theyve had a great time. Theyve learned something, theyve played, theyve socialized with other individuals for those that are care partners, theyre having fun with other care partners. And theyre having fun with this loved one, whether thats a grandparent, whether thats a spouse, whether thats a friend.

And even with paid caregivers, theyve got a whole new bag of tricks to work with. That is where I think the incredible power of positives come from when youve got a care partner in the class is youve got a whole new language to use. Youve got a whole new way of being present to your loved one. And enjoying your loved one. So thats pretty darn exciting if they take that home. In studies that have been done, individuals, and a lot of these are in different arts programs because they get so much enjoyment, because they get so much just social engagement, depending again on the individual, the positives from these sorts of engagements can last three to five days when care partners are reporting back. Is that always the case? Thats going to depend on the individual.

Amanda: To even have that option.

Pam: Huge.

Amanda: A non-medication option thats going to make life better for days to come.

Pam: One of my favorite … Yes. Well, and thank you for saying that because what we know with medical now that we didnt know what, almost 20 years ago when my mother died. We were handed a brochure. Today, doctors, social workers, senior centers, have this vast array of programs that they can introduce individuals to that are quality-of-life programs. We dont have a cure yet. We may not have a cure for a while, but now we have quality-of-life knowledge that allows them to get off the medications for depression. That allows them to get off other medications where so many are overmedicated. And the medical community wants to see that. So the medical community, University of Washington, Memory and Brain Wellness, phenomenal work that is being done there on not just how are we moving forward in looking for cure, but how are we moving forward in what we can do now for people with memory loss? Its exciting.

Amanda: It reminds me of, on the just physical realm, weve grown so much. If you get, say, a hip replacement, it used to be you would lay in bed until it was healed, and then you try and learn to walk again. Now they have you up and walking as soon as the medicine wore off because they realize that combination of surgery, drugs, and physical therapy, you really need all of the above. And what I hear you saying is now were starting to realize that with brain … with a diagnosis of its not a physical thing, its a brain ailment. Its the same thing.

Pam: Thats right.

Amanda: You have to exercise it and you have to move it, and you have to use muscles, if you will. Your brain muscles, the same … you cant just rely on medication. Thats never going to be enough.

Pam: No, and I think that most essential thing that were learning is they still have so much life to share. And recognizing the dignity of the individual, recognizing that there is someone, and I think it can take coaxing. And were learning how to coax. Because as you said earlier, there is embarrassment. There is absolutely a stigma that comes with the diagnosis.

Those things are all negatives. We as those that are surrounding and living in a world that is becoming more dementia friendly, need to be able to be the ones that can take the time to coax that individual out and for them to feel safe. If I say something thats a little mixed up, give me a minute. Just give me a minute and let all of my brain memories come to the forefront. Thats an interesting thing. Theyll say, I cant remember. Well, the reality is theres a great deal that they can remember.

Its just not normally the executive function that we think of in basically our very, very left-brain world as far as essential memory. But when it comes to living life, the memories that they hold are incredible. So we just need to learn more about what those are, whether its your grandmother, whether its your spouse. Most of us will at some point either know someone or love someone, care for someone, or be an individual who is experiencing memory loss ourselves. Its going to touch everyone. So lets learn enough to be able to have there be some joy in that rather than terror.

Amanda: Right. Because I think theres so much there now and not being accepted by those around you can do nothing but add to that terror on a daily basis.

Pam: Absolutely.

Amanda: And which one of us can function well in terror. When you think about it that way, of course, its harder to do something thats more difficult for you now than it was earlier. Of course, its harder when you are scared and when youre scared of how people will react and maybe how you will be judged. And so to have that space, to have that space where not only is it okay for you to just throw something out, and if its correct, thats fine. And if its not, thats fine.

Pam: Its more fine in an improv class.

Amanda: Thats why Im saying talk about a safe space. I think we sort of maybe overuse the term safe space now, but a safe space for those who are experiencing that fear so regularly. Well, Pam, this work that youve done has been acknowledged on a national level. You just won a Maud award, which is a national award for those doing work with memory loss and memory care. Tell us about that.

Pam: The Maudes Award are, this is only three years old, and in those three years, the Maudes Awards have already reached internationally and nationally with innovations in Alzheimers care. They choose three organizations and five individuals a year for the work in their particular innovation in Alzheimers and dementia care. This particular award was created by a man who was Richard Fairy, who was married for 65 years, beautiful long marriage to his wife, Maude, who basically was diagnosed with Alzheimers.

And he personally was looking for ways that he could serve and care for her in creative ways. And thats where he just went, Im going to create with a foundation something where I can find out more. Because we dont have enough knowledge of whats going on in the rest of the world. So much being done in Europe, so much being done in other parts of the US.

So all of a sudden, were speaking to each other because of the Maudes Awards. Were finding out whats being done through these awards in a way that is just so beautifully packaged. They are innovations in care. So whats this innovation? Why a personal award to Pam Nolte? The first thing Ill say is no one does anything alone. So my kudos go to Taproot Theatre Company and to my co-teacher, who has worked most of the years with me, Rob Martin, in the work of guiding, developing, and growing this program.

But I think that the innovation thats exciting is we hire professional actors. We hire professional actors with improv training. We hire professional actors with improv training who are interested in brain science. So theres the kicker on that one. Any number of actors would love to have a teaching gig. Any number of actors who are improv actors would love to have a teaching gig for them to want to train with us there has to be any interest in brain science and all of the work that goes along with that. Because that helps them do improv with a population that is experiencing memory loss.

So they learn about many, many different types of dementias, not just Alzheimers. What part of the brain does that affect? If that part of the brain is affected, how does that change this, that, or the other in where their memory usage is? If its Parkinsons, weve taught Parkinsons classes. What part of the brain is affected by that? An example of that would be it may take more time for an individual with Parkinsons to reply to a question. Then it will be a perfect response. If you dont wait for that moment for that individual with Parkinsons to pull those thoughts and words together, then you can assume incorrectly that that individual has a brain disease that is not what the Parkinsons situation is.

So in doing improv with someone with Parkinsons, one of the things that we have to be sure we do, because improv is pretty quick, right, Amanda?

Amanda: Yes.

Pam: Pretty quick. One of the things that we have to do is be sure to wait if we have someone with Parkinsons in the group to not step on an idea that might have come from that individual with Parkinsons. And when youre in an ongoing class, other members of the class then also know, Oh, with Tom, we just wait a minute, because then hes going to be right there with the next crazy suggestion or the next answer on that. So it becomes this family of different individuals with different brain diseases and how we all work together, how we all play together in the class, and how the teachers bring their knowledge of brain disease to those classes.

Amanda: So my grandmother, who my mother was her number one caregiver, together they came and lived with us for three years when our kids were little. And to be in a house with two little kids and a dog. It was a lot of that play and a lot of that interaction that you were talking about. And yet, even though I was someone who did improv on a regular basis, it never occurred to me, I didnt know that that was something that we could do together or something we could try. So for those who are listening to this who have someone with memory loss in their life, and maybe they dont live in Seattle and cant try and track down a Taproot class, what would you say to caregivers and loved ones that are just so excited to hear there might be some help here. Are there some simple games or some resources? Where can they go to help implement some of these things?

Pam: The first thing that I will say for those that are listening from other areas is Taproot is still teaching classes on Zoom. So individuals can actually zoom into a class from anywhere that they are zoom accessible. So go to taproottheatre.com, go to the acting studio page, go to the early-stage memory loss classes, and they can get information on that.

That said, let me talk about one of my students to bring you into some ideas that are fun. One of the things that we teach is a very, very special language called gibberish. So with gibberish, which is used in a lot of improv classes, we teach this foreign language of gibberish, and we can end up having debates in gibberish. We can end up having all kinds of different contests and gibberish where contestants are judged with the gibberish judges speaking, whatever comments they have. It might be a debate on the difference between chocolate and strawberry ice cream. And you divide them into … Its great fun with individuals with memory loss who start losing words, to speak gibberish, to basically teach the language to them, which is simply [gibberish]. No, that was me speaking gibberish. Amanda speaks some gibberish to me.

Amanda: [Gibberish]

Pam: So I could hear the excitement in your voice. Gibberish allows us to bring emotion into a conversation. So lets, for example, say you were with your grandma and she started something and she got all tongue tied at that moment, and you said, Oh, grandma, if you would just explain that to me, just carry that on with gibberish. And youve already taught and youve already been playing with some gibberish, its going to relax her brain. Its going to make her laugh first of all, its like, No, no, I really want to hear it. As she starts speaking in gibberish to you, especially if its something thats hard, you may not just be hearing gibberish. You may start hearing the emotion at that moment, which speaks volumes to family members. And as that gibberish continues, as her mind, her brain relaxes, those actual words may start coming back. But in the end, youve had a conversation. A granddaughter and her grandmother, youve shared some laughs.

Its fun to use those sense memories and take a trip. Lets stay with grandma for a minute. Lets take a trip. Oh, grandma, I want to hear a story about a favorite moment in grammar school, whatever that would be. And then taking that story, first of all, youre hearing a story that youve probably never heard before as a family member, as a grandchild. And then you can take it into play. If shes a playful individual, if you have a playful granddaughter, child, and go, Oh my gosh, would you teach me how to play hopscotch the way you used to play?

Depending on the physical ability? Or would you show me what cats cradle looked like? And then was there something that you said along with that? Well, those words may not come. Its like, oh, lets put it into a gibberish song. So all of those sorts of things, the stretching that we did, oh, grandma, whats a stretch that … What part of your body just needs a big old stretch? Do that game that we did earlier? Yeah. But grandma, grandma, grandma, thats kind of boring. Lets make up a funny name to go with it.

Again you get the giggles going, you get the fun going, you get just this playful interaction. We do a lot of sound ball or tossing. I have, its called a googly ball, and I might start with a word, which is just, ugh, its fall. We want to basically bring them back to the time, the day, the year, the more that we can bring them and enter into, this is where we are now. Thats always hopeful. So Grandma, it is September 21. I mean can you believe its already 2022. We have already reoriented them to time. And I mean, here we are sitting in Seattle. Weve oriented to place, and I am so excited about fall.

So Im just going to, well, Im going to start with my favorite thing that I like about the fall. And Im going to say crisp air. And Im going to toss this ball to you, and you give me the next word, but I want you to repeat what I said first. Activating that recall memory of what Ive just said. So grandma would say crisp air, but she might not. She might immediately go to I like pumpkins. No wrong answer. Pumpkins. I love that. Grandma. Toss that word back to me. Toss me pumpkins. Grandma tosses, pumpkins. Ooh, scary. Then the new word is scary. I toss scary back to grandma. Grandma says what, Amanda?

Amanda: Scary.

Pam: Scary, good. Whats a new word? Amanda? Grandma Amanda.

Amanda: Halloween.

Pam: That goes with scary. Halloween. Whoa. Toss that back to me.

Amanda: Halloween.

Pam: Halloween. Now, sometimes we dont end up repeating because they didnt … So its okay. We just change the game. We go into whatever is working for grandma or spouse or care partner, and we keep that ball moving. They are using their body. Theyre catching a Nerf ball, a soft childs manta ray, whatever happens to be soft that anyone can catch. So that thats always easy. And were tossing back and forth. Were waking up the brain as we are tossing the ball back and forth. Were waking up the senses by saying a memory of fall. Were not saying, whats it look like outside today? We are pulling on distant past and very often really warm, fuzzy emotional memories. So were pulling all of those memories that still exist into the play.

Amanda: And so much of what I hear in what youre saying is gamifying those conversations that when its just a straight conversation, fear can come in. Because I cant remember the word or maybe I dont remember what you just said. But once theres levity, once its become a game, then thats taking some of that fear away and letting the interaction happen. Just genius.

Pam: That is correct. We start with in a class, we have about a half an hour, that is what we call circle time. So theyre sitting, were doing the circle games. By then they are warmed up enough to be on their feet and playing in that next kind of creative, imaginative world that is going to start popping up in different ways.

Amanda: Well, other than the fact that I want to come and help teach one of your classes someday, whats next for you? Whats your dream for the program?

Pam: I think the thing that is most exciting, I mean, were already talking about the outcomes. There is no question this is good for people. It is good for their care partners. When care partners come, it is good for just walking out the door happy. Yes. Yes. What we would love to see is weve been asked to teach a class over at Kirkland Performance Art Center to improv actors that might be interested in serving the East Side. Taproot can only do so much. What Taproot can do at this point in time is teach others to do what we are doing. So I think one of the things that Rob and I talk about is how do we put this then into a structured class with the brain science, with the games themselves, with what are we working with, with the different types of dementias?

And then inviting in physicians, neurologists, the psychologists that are the specialists in these fields to bring in their information in an online or in-person class that we would be teaching together. So at that point, were really excited about expanding that way. How do we basically turn this in … And weve done some, we taught a group of individuals over in Wenatchee in what we call the before times right? Little sci-fi. In the before times, pre-pandemic, in Wenatchee. And the class that we were going to teach there for Kirkland Performing Arts Center was pre-pandemic. So as things are just starting to open back up for in-person, thats a very exciting part of the future that we see.

Another extremely important part of the future that we see is expanding basically the Zoom classes. So that around the nation, people have teachers that are in their geographical areas in a perfect world, because theyre in that place. When theyre talking about the farms of Georgia, where some of my students at Southeast Seattle Senior Center are talking about their childhood homes.

For someone who actually grew up in that area, theyve got a whole different knowledge that they can take those games to and play in the site-specific ways that I would love to see that kind of Zoom move into. In the meantime, we can have a grand time with individuals that come in from New York, which we had not too long ago, who just want to come in and play. But we would love to expand the number of actors that are trained with, again, the brain science and the improv to do the Zoom teaching. That doesnt require actors being on site. And the reality is, with memory loss, there often come in the later stages, the mobility issues, or just more rural areas where they cant get into a city that might be doing in-person classes. So that kind of reach is very exciting as far as serving the largest community of need.

Amanda: Oh, so exciting. So exciting. All right. Well, Im going to wrap us up with our favorite last question. From your unique perspective, if you could have everyone in Seattle wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that would make the world a better place, what would you have us do?

Pam: I would ask them to take a great, huge, deep breath and think about how much goodness there is in the world, and how much we have to be thankful for. Because some days thats very hard to remember. And when I wake up that way, still under my covers, my day is different. If I take the time to breathe in. For me, that also means a thank you God in a very, very specific way. But to breathe that beauty and goodness, that is the world that we get to flourish in. Whether we have memory loss or dont, we all have our different challenges. But to breathe in the goodness, great big, deep breath. Its good for every part of us, especially our brains.

“Whether we have memory loss or dont, we all have our different challenges. But to breathe in the goodness, great big, deep breath. Its good for every part of us, especially our brains.”

Amanda: All right. So Im going to hold you to letting me come to one of your classes one of these days, but I also hope youll come back and visit us again sometime.

Pam: Yeah, Amanda, we will love to have you anytime. Thank you so much.

Amanda: Thank you, Pam.


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