MemoryCare uses theater to explore dementia’s impact
There is no shortage of facts and figures about dementia. In North Carolina, there are more than 170,000 adults with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. In Western North Carolina, over 20 percent of the population is 65 or older, compared with 13 percent in the rest of the state. But statistics rarely touch a person the way art can. This is why MemoryCare, a local nonprofit that provides care for families affected by dementia, seeks to educate people about progressive cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease not solely through lectures and pamphlets — but through theater.
When MemoryCare put out a call for submissions, playwrights from around the country responded with one-act plays depicting the realities of memory loss and the true-to-life, often heart-rending scenarios that occur within a family affected by dementia. The three winning plays appear in the book The MemoryCare Plays.
The first play, Steering into the Skid: A Play in Twelve Months, by Deborah Ann Percy and Arnold Johnston, is cleverly imagined and poignantly delivered. In it, we observe the interactions of an aging couple as the seasons change and as the husband’s Alzheimer’s disease — barely perceptible at first — progresses and shifts the dynamic of their marriage. In the Garden, by Matthew Widman, captures a family in crisis as three grown children gather at their family home to decide what to do about their ailing father. In the third play, Riding the Waves by L.E. Grabowski-Cotton, the ocean serves as a metaphor for the coming and going of a woman’s memories. The playwright weaves past and present together to illustrate a mother’s struggles to remember and her children’s struggles to accept their mother’s disease. All plays face the heavy topic of dementia head-on, but each play also possesses a certain sweetness as well as moments of humor.
More than 200 people attended the first production of The MemoryCare Plays last May, perhaps speaking to the ever-growing number of local families impacted by dementia and memory loss. The plays are intended to be a tool for education, complete with discussion questions, and have found good use in support groups, book clubs and educational programs.
Xpress sat down with Margaret Noel, founder of MemoryCare and editor of the book, to learn more.
Mountain Xpress: What inspired you to use theater to educate people about dementia?
Noel: The third part of our mission is to provide education on memory disorders for the general public and other professionals as well, and so throughout my career, I’ve often gone out and done the usual scientific lecture and presented the facts and figures and updated people on research findings and various things.
But I do find that it’s often hard to communicate how this disease really impacts a family in their day-to-day lives, what’s unique about it and how it affects not just how we think and remember, but how we function, how we can independently carry out our days and how we communicate. Those things really are almost better captured in an art form, in a dramatic way. I love one of the quotes in the book, from C. Robert Jones, a retired professor of theater at Mars Hill. He states that “art can sometimes reach people when science cannot,” and that’s what I love about these plays. I think they bring home the full impact that this disease can have on a family.
MemoryCare put on a performance of the one-act plays last May before the book was released. What was the audience response like?
I think the audience left more uplifted than I was perhaps expecting. I was concerned because it’s a heavy topic, and I was concerned about how people would respond when they’re facing these three plays covering really difficult areas and tensions within families. People left, though, with just a heart of gratitude, in the sense that they understood better, and it was not the oppressive feeling you might expect given the topic.
I was so pleased with the [playwright’s] ability to show both sides. One of the reviewers who read these plays said, “These plays are full of sweat and sweetness.” And I think that was such an apt description of the balance. You see how hard the work is. How hard it is to both have a dementia as well as how hard it is to care with somebody with it, but you also see that sometimes there are blessings within that. There is an interdependency that can happen within the relationships because someone needs someone, and that person rises to the occasion to help them.
All three plays do such a good job of illustrating various stages of memory loss and different family dynamics — romantic partnerships changing because of the disease, siblings bickering over how to best to care for their father. Is there one moment that rang especially true to you?
I did the first calling — over 90 plays came through — and one of my criteria just to start bringing it down was how well do they accurately reflect the disease process itself? I think in the ones that were ultimately selected by the jury panel, all depict the accurate portrayals of the various things that people have to struggle with. In the first play, you’re dealing with the early stage of dementia, and you’re seeing that place where a caregiver is going: “Is this normal aging? Is this normal? Is there something wrong here?” You pick that up, and as you move along in the progression of the months, you become very aware that it’s not normal. But how skillfully the playwright was able to show the transition of a caregiver from the place of “This might just be normal” to “This is not, and we’re going to have to deal with it. We’re going to have to acknowledge it and change our lives because of it.”
What is one thing that you really want to stress to families when their loved ones receive a diagnosis of dementia?
One of the most important things is to understand is that there is a brain disease present. I think the most frustration comes in the very early time when the caregiver tries to make that person come back to where they were, forcing them to try harder: If you just try, you’ll remember. If you just try, you’ll do these things.
It sets up a tension within a relationship, and it’s terribly frustrating to our patients to always be called back to a level of performance that they can no longer achieve. So we try to help a caregiver come to a place and understand that this is a degenerative process within my loved one’s brain, they are doing the very best that they can and I’m the one who needs to change in order to be able to help them in the best way.