Improvisation and Caregiving

I’m a writer more than anything, but I’m also a musical theater fan, a voice actor, an amateur cellist, and I spent several years as a member of my local ComedySportz troupe. Improvisation has been part of my life since the beginning, and only grew more prevalent when a good friend (and one of the other behind-the-scenes folks here at Breathing Spaces), Clay Robeson, encouraged me to participate in a workshop his troupe was offering about 19 years ago.

Yes And?

The result of all of this is that improvisation – improv – has seeped into everything I do. When I’m world-building for a story, I ask myself, “Okay, if THIS is true, then WHAT ELSE must be true?”  It’s the whole concept of “agree and add” in action.

What I’ve learned since then is that caregiving IS improv. Moods change, aging parents sometimes lose track of the here and now, young children resent it when they don’t feel heard, and nobody likes hearing “no.” Improv isn’t a total cure-all, but its core is cooperation. Being a partner  – a teammate – to the person you care for is infinitely preferable to being an authority figure or dictator, which is a role too many of us slip into.

While many factors combine to form productive improvisation, there are three key elements that I find most useful for caregiving.

Pay Attention

How many times in your life has a parent or teacher admonished you to “Pay attention!” How many times has a child  or elder implored you to “Listen to me!”

In improv, if you aren’t paying attention to your partners, you miss vital information. After all, improv is often all about endowment, and if you don’t hear someone introducing you as their husband/sister/next-door neighbor/English teacher/whatever, you won’t know how best to add to the scene in progress.

In caregiving,  lack of attention means anything from hurt feelings to actual injuries. Especially as mental faculties begin to fade, paying attention is crucial. My grandmother would worry about her long since deceased mother being late for dinner, or she’d talk about being lost on a shopping trip, to the point where she was in severe emotional distress. Finally, we realized she didn’t have a photo to look at. We found a photograph, and Grandma relaxed. Her real fear was that she was forgetting the image of her mother’s face. If we hadn’t been paying close attention to what she was saying, we would never have been able to resolve the situation.

Be Specific

In improvisation, in writing, in caregiving, and in life, specifics matter.

Specifics are the difference between, “I wish I had some help with dinner,” and “Becca, would you mind scrubbing these potatoes for me?” They’re the difference between, “I’m in a bad mood,” and “I’m grumpy because I’m overtired, so let’s do something restful this afternoon.” And it’s also the difference between  vague queries about how someone is feeling or asking, “is your hip still hurting you?” or “would you like to sit on the porch today?”

Being specific is also especially helpful when caring for children, because instead of saying “later,” when an activity is requested, you can answer with “we have to do x, y, and z, first, but when those things are done, we can color/play a game/go for a walk/whatever might have been asked.”

Yes, And…

There’s an improv mantra, of sorts, that goes, “You can’t deny another person’s reality; you can only build on it.” The shorthand version of this – as well as being the central tenet of improvisation in general – is “agree and add,” or, in the more popular vernacular, “Yes, and.”

On stage, this means that you take whatever another improviser has given you and expand it. It is building momentum, instead of allowing inertia.

“Here I’ve brought you a mug of coffee,” someone might say.

“Yes, and now my brain will kick into gear and I can solve the energy crises,” their scene partner might answer.

When you say “Yes, and” you’re validating what another person has said, and adding something new. In its broadest sense, “Yes, and” is saying yes to everything life throws at you – good or bad – and then adding to it. It is accepting the reality of any given situation, and then being willing to take the next step.

This doesn’t mean that finding a way to respond “Yes, and” to every situation requires you to be happy and perky. “Honey, I crashed the car into a tree,” your spouse or partner could inform you, one evening. “Yes, and now that I know you’re okay, I’ll find the insurance agent’s number,” you might respond if you’re incredibly calm, but it would be an equally valid response if you said, “Yes, and it’s a good thing you didn’t die in the process, because now I can kill you myself!”

Even in a less-than-positive situation, “Yes, and” continues the conversation.

Every time we try something new, face a fear, engage in conversation with a stranger, we’re really saying “Yes, and,” to the universe. Whether you’re sharing a personal essay, publishing a poem you worked on for hours, or spending time with a person you’re caring for, you have the opportunity to continue the conversation.

“My mother is dead, isn’t she?” My grandmother might ask.

“I’m afraid she is,” I might reply. “I’m sorry I never got to meet her. Why don’t you tell me something you remember?”

Improvisational skills allow us as caregivers, and just as people, to break cycles of certain moods, and expand the conversations we have with those we take care of. They allow us to move away from darker moods and memories and redirect situations into more positive interactions. They give us the opportunity to be better listeners, which in turn makes us better caregivers.

I’ve internalized a lot of the improv principles I’ve shared today, but I still have to make a conscious effort to replace “No, because,” or “Yes, but,” with “Yes, and,” when I’m feeling grumpy or snarky or shy.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It. Yes. And. The play of life? It’s unscripted.

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