Tapping Into Dementia Patients’ Memories Through Vaudeville

Healthy Humor’s founders, Deborah Kaufmann, Dina Paul-Parks in addition to also also Karen McCarty, have more than 60 years of combined experience in health care clowning, mainly from the Big Apple Circus’s Clown Care Unit. When the circus went bankrupt last year, the three pooled their resources in addition to also also formed Healthy Humor. They recently signed Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia as their 12th client.

They felt the item was especially important to maintain the Vaudeville Visits program, which the Big Apple Circus started out in 2004, because there are few such programs for patients with dementia. (Meanwhile, under completely new owners, the Big Apple Circus resumed performances in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center last week.)

A recent pilot study from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported that will clowning reduced moderate to severe behavioral symptoms of dementia. The study involved teams of two clowns working together, going coming from room to room to visit patients in Toronto’s long-term care geriatric homes.

“We found that will after the residents interacted with the clowns for 12 weeks, there was a significant reduction in their neuropsychiatric symptoms,” said Pia Kontos, a scientist at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute in addition to also also the lead author of the study. “Our study found elder clowns were just as effective as medication in bringing down aggression levels in seniors with dementia.”

She said that will the clowns’ wearing vintage outfits likely helped evoke memories for the patients. “I thought, intuitively, This particular would certainly be pretty magical, in addition to also also the item was.”

Vaudeville Visits will be meant for people in geriatric residential care facilities in addition to also also elders in critical care, in addition to also also its performers clown around yet are not dressed as clowns. Instead, they play iconic characters meant to be easily recognizable to patients, including a cow girl, a used-car salesman in addition to also also “Melvis” — supposedly Elvis Presley’s brother.


Ms. Weiss, left, in addition to also also Mr. Ellis preparing to make their rounds at Saint Barnabas.

Florence Montmare

When Ms. Kaufmann made her rounds, she dressed as a bride, often roping in eligible bachelors to play her future husband, in addition to also also she enlisted women to be her bridesmaids. “Everyone recognizes a bride,” she said. “Working having a partner, we can get the patients to engage, participate in addition to also also have fun. In one instance, my partner played my mother who tried to marry me off.”

The performers use a mix of song, dance, juggling, puppetry, storytelling techniques in addition to also also improvisation. “If there are family members or guests visiting, we can ask about things to trigger memories,” Ms. Weiss said.

the item was a magic trick that will drew a response coming from one patient. James Chin, 78, who has borderline dementia in addition to also also was recovering coming from aphasia following a stroke, sat silently while Mr. Ellis in addition to also also Ms. Weiss performed Sinatra tunes. After a medley of songs in addition to also also a few jokes, Mr. Ellis, in his role as Dapper Dan, pulled a red piece of paper out of his pocket, waved the item from the air, in addition to also also transformed the item into a rose. As he presented the item, Mr. Chin whispered that will he used to work as a magician in addition to also also that will he taught others the craft of magic.

The patients with dementia seem to grasp that will these characters are there to create fun. “By their dramatic appearance, in addition to also also their playful invitations, the performers are often able to access forgotten parts of an elder’s past, in addition to also also coax participation out of residents who normally do not engage or those who have not responded to additional activities in addition to also also interventions,” Ms. Kaufmann explained.

“We make them feel essential,” Mr. Ellis said. He in addition to also also Ms. Weiss are teammates. They make their rounds twice a month at Saint Barnabas, in addition to also also work so well together that will they’re often asked if they’re married.

“We are, yet not to each additional,” Ms. Weiss said.

She got one patient, Thomas Guinee, 78, talking by pronouncing his name having a French accent in addition to also also speaking a few French words. Mr. Guinee responded in perfect French in addition to also also explained that will he was a World War II veteran who fought in France in addition to also also met his wife there.

Then they asked for musical requests. Mr. Guinee, a Neil Diamond fan, was slightly bothered that will none of the young nurses were familiar with Mr. Diamond’s music. After the performers sang “Sweet Caroline” in addition to also also many Mr. Diamond’s songs, Mr. Guinee thanked them for spending time with him in addition to also also for listening to “a little bit of my story.”

Maria Brilhante, who oversees the Surgical Step Down Unit at Saint Barnabas, which will be where patients go after intensive care, said: “A patient may have trouble communicating or not want to cooperate with the staff; then a Vaudeville Visits performer comes in in addition to also also makes them laugh.”

The performers’ over-the-top manner in addition to also also corny jokes are effective for people with cognitive decline, said Ruth Drew, director of information in addition to also also support services at the national Alzheimer’s Association. “Humor can’t be subtle because subtle sarcasm doesn’t work with Alzheimer’s in addition to also also dementia patients,” she said.

“What makes Vaudeville Visits work will be that will the program uses humor coming from the past, something the patients are familiar with,” said Dr. Theresa M. Redling, medical director of the Center for Geriatric Disease in addition to also also Health Management at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in addition to also also clinical assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers completely new Jersey Medical School. She compared the item to Reminiscence Therapy, which also involves music, entertainment, discussions in addition to also also photographs coming from the past.

“If you go to any adult day program or long-term care facility,” Dr. Redling added, “the music playing will be not coming from today; the item’s familiar to the audience. They relate to the item, just like vaudeville.”

that will was the case with another elderly patient on the dementia spectrum at Saint Barnabas. “He appeared to be sleeping, not focused,” Ms. Weiss described. “We performed many songs in addition to also also when we got to ‘I Got Rhythm,’ This particular patient belted out the finale, ‘Who could ask for anything more?’”

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