How to say no, nicely

 

For some of us, the pandemic brought a guilty pleasure. We were released from the burden of having to say no to some social obligations.

In-person socializing was a loss, but for us introverts, it was a kind of relief.

As the possibility of social obligations returns, I’ve heard friends saying, “I can’t use the pandemic as an excuse for saying no anymore.”

I recently tested my atrophied socializing skills at two dinners with vaccinated friends. Receiving real hugs felt fantastic, not to mention talking in person and sharing a meal. I noticed, however, that as much as I enjoyed my friends, I ran through my withered stock of extroversion after a couple of hours.

This suggested I may need to take a go-slow approach to becoming social again. Plan ahead. And, remember how to say no when that’s needed.

It may help to create a protocol for how much I can do. That will make it easier to set boundaries without offending. How many in-person coffee dates/walks/dinners out can I do if I want to stay on track with writing my book? The same question applies to volunteer activities/discussion groups/webinars/doctor appointments. (Truth: I perpetually over-estimate my capacities.)

Sometimes the solution is to space things out.

Other times I need to “just say no.”

Prep your no with some inner work

You can prepare a kinder no by remembering the following:

1) You have nothing to prove.

Having to prove myself has been a secret mantra much of my life. It overlays two fundamental beliefs many of us carry: that we’re unworthy (and must prove ourselves likable) or that we’re not good enough (and have to do more).

We hide under the veneer of being nice, delightful, high-achieving people. But our achievements never fill the soul-hole that feels like we’re always lacking.


We jump through hoops to be worthy of being liked. We set high standards for ourselves that we can never meet. We stretch ourselves to achieve. We constantly seek self-improvement. We try to do more than we can or should for others.

We may produce some impressive results. Yet we can’t celebrate our contributions when they lie on top of the belief that we should have done more or were not worthy to begin with.

I wish I could snap my fingers or read a book and make such beliefs go away. I can’t. But I can notice how they lurk in the background when I’m tempted to take on too much or faced with an invitation that I don’t feel called to do.

If you’re looking at an invitation that sounds like an obligation and not what you know you’re meant to accept, it’s time for a pause.

Find a time for silence and quiet space in which to ask the questions, “What do I know is right for me to do now?” And, “Am I trying to prove or make up for something?”

2) Respond with an open heart

When people feel your love, your “no” won’t sting. Your words may not even matter as much as your intent. People may end up feeling more appreciated.

Always open your heart before you open your mouth.

Some phrases to try:

Start with what you can do vs. what you can’t.

“I’d be glad to share some thoughts with you, even though I can’t take this on.”

Be sympathetic without agreeing to do something.

“Your project sounds inspired and I wish I could help, although I can’t.”

Offer a future/possible option.

“I can’t now, but maybe I can (insert date), if you don’t mind waiting.”

Be real about your situation.

“I’m maxed/slammed/overcommitted, etc. so I can’t but….”

Just say no.

“Thank you so much, but no.”

(If you need more, check out this site.)

Saying no supports our yeses

Saying no saves room for yeses. Yeses to seeing vaccinated friends we haven’t seen in a year. Yeses to being with family. (I’m with my grandson this week!!!) Yeses to helping those still affected by Covid (with big prayers and support for India).

And yeses to protecting some calm, silent, reflective space to nourish our inner life even as the gates to the world begin to open.

Zoom fatigue? It’s real and what to do

 

Many of us have been experiencing a chronic condition since early into the pandemic: Zoom fatigue. It’s growing worse.

Last November, Psychiatric Times published an article, “A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue.”

Bottom line: it’s real.

18 months ago, I had barely Zoomed. Now I use Zoom as a verb. I nominate “Zoom fatigue” as the next code in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

The past two Saturdays I attended great six-hour workshops over Zoom. The events were well designed and attracted great people. I learned a lot. And, at the end of each, all I could was flop on the couch. Zoom fatigue.

I’m not bashing Zoom. It has been a godsend. I’ve used it to learn so much this year.

But on Saturday, I started searching for the science behind my fatigue. Was it just me?

I found fascinating material on why Zoom tires our brains. I cite the articles below. Here, I’ll distill what I learned through my own experience. Then, I’ll offer a few home-brewed suggestions about what we can do to renew ourselves.

Your brain on Zoom: a personal perspective

Time delays. I’m getting used to those small time-lapses between people’s lips and their voices or between sending and receiving messages. Many of us don’t have the best internet connections so we’ve learned to tolerate this. But even a millisecond gap in what we hear makes our job of listening to a conversation harder. Our brain has to jump over the little chasms in connection to keep tracking on the conversation. We’re making it work harder.

Fewer rewards. Psychologists remind us the brain likes rewards. I speak, you smile back, I’m rewarded. We have a lot fewer rewards for our efforts on Zoom. We can’t see the subtle responses coming from the sixteen little boxed heads facing us on the screen. Making a positively brilliant comment on Zoom, only to experience a three-second delay before being acknowledged, does not reward. Neither does having someone unintentionally jump in and speak over the top of you. Fewer rewards mean more fatigue.

Eye contact. People reward each other and build relationships through eye contact. You know the problem of trying to look at the camera and the screen at the same time on Zoom. We’re probably creating a new race of beings who can only look at each other obliquely.

The stare factor. There’s a name for this Zoom phenomenon: “constant gaze.” Outside of those personal growth workshops in the eighties, most people do not stare into each other’s eyes from three feet away for any period of time. I tested this at dinner with my husband. We looked at each other, then at the beans, then at the dogs, then the rice, all the while paying attention to each other. The conversation was enjoyable. Staring at faces can be exhausting.

Blinks. The research I read was based on life pre-Zoom, but the idea translates. Apparently, we often blink less when working intently at the computer. I’m sure prolonged staring at little boxes contributes to eye strain.

Multitasking. I know: it tires us without being very effective. But, you’re more enlightened than me if you never multitask on Zoom. (We knew that anyway.) The longer I sit on Zoom the more likely I am to be guilty of multitasking. Am I not supposed to read and respond to the message: “Shall I pick up Syrian food for supper?” when it might lead to a yummy, work-free dinner?

Tech glitches. My poor brain. How long have I sat trying to sustain my attention as someone struggles to resolve a tech glitch. (Or I do). My brain hangs out on pause as if it’s stuck in rush hour traffic on I-5. Exhausting.

Watching your own face. Apparently, Zoom discovered this drives some people crazy. Now, you can adjust Zoom so that you don’t have to see your own face. Personally, I’ve come to like my cheekbones more than I thought, even as I worry about the bags under my eyes.  Which reminds me of another thing:

Lighting. Lots of tips are available for lighting your face for Zoom, but how many of us want to turn a simple conversation into a photoshoot? Still, I strain watching friends whose faces look like ghosts in the penumbra. It’s not their fault. It’s 11:30 pm in England and they’re in their jammies.

Less mobile. This is my personal bugaboo. Using the phone, I can pay attention and sweep the floor. I even listen more. Physical activity can keep us energized, The science indicates that “physical activity is associated with about a 40% reduced risk of fatigue.” Turn that around and it doesn’t look good for Zoom.

Weird backdrops, I know that shot of Hawaii is prettier than what’s behind you in your office, but it’s disconcerting to see your head merging into the waves. And I’m sure it’s disconcerting to see all the stuff I have behind me in my studio. I’ve started using a plain paper screen. Admittedly, I’ve enjoyed seeing people’s homes with their pets, kids, art, and toys. But a plain backdrop can also be soothing.

I could add more, but I’ll refer you at the end to some interesting articles. In the meantime:

How to avoid Zoom fatigue

Some of the suggestions you’ve heard before. I’ll start with the obvious and then give you a few I’ve invented.

UPS. (Use the phone, silly.) You’ve seen my face. It’s just the two of us. Can we talk on the phone so I can sweep the floor and listen better to you?

Fewer meetings. I cry uncle. I love the webinars I’ve attended. But I need to limit my chair-sitting Zoom time. I like to listen to recordings so I can move about.

Less multi-tasking. Notice I don’t say none. (I’m not that hypocritical.) If you break to read that message from your husband or feed the dog, your sin is minor. Acknowledge it, take a breath, and return to the conversation.

Better design. I’ve had the opportunity to see a few Zoom-design pros in action. What I observe are more activities that engage people, through the chat, breakout groups, exercises, games, and breaks. The pros also facilitate conversations so that extremely-extroverted-Eleanor or I-haven’t -spoken-to-anyone-in-months-Harry don’t monopolize or excessively prolong the conversation.

Shorter sessions. My in-person classes used to go for ninety minutes without a break. I think our endurance is half that on Zoom.

Turn off the video. Could we take a break from the video? Maybe just leave the speaker on view? Or let ME turn off my video? Hey, I love you even if you don’t see me. But my back will love you more if I can be liberated from this chair. I need to move. I’ll be listening

Now for my homemade brew:

Play more. This is big. Play interrupts the hypnotic trance we can fall into. With a little experimenting, you can play games and use Zoom for improv. And you’ll wake people up before they become hypnotized. Play reminds us that we are people and not cyborgs. Here’s a simple game: Invite folks to rename themselves on Zoom (easy to do) to the name of their favorite historical figure, super-hero or alter ego. Then, talk from that voice. Who knows, I might be more useful to the conversation as Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, or Rosa Parks.

Bounce it up. For Christmas, I was given a rebounder, (mini-trampoline). Now I sometimes bounce during calls. (Video off). I can look at the computer and still feel like I have a body! It relaxes me. Yoga’s not so good because it’s harder to see the screen. With audio off, I sometimes chant under my breath. It helps my lungs and no one knows!.

Eye breaks. Help your eyes relax. They’re on the frontline for Zoom fatigue. Rub your hands very quickly together and then place your palms over your eyes to help relax them. Or remind yourself to gently stare off in the distance every so often. The researchers say you need twenty seconds of staring at a distance at least 20 feet away every 20 minutes.  With Zoom, I need to look away more often. Every three minutes?

Draw and doodle. A friend once caught me in the act and asked, “Are you drawing us?” Guilty!  I felt so embarrassed. I think the up and down of my eyes was distracting. Next time, I’ll kill the video. But really, what’s so bad about doodling and drawing? People do it all the time during in-person lectures. Drawing is my favorite way to stay focused and relaxed. Plus, staring at Zoom has taught me that faces are fascinating. You don’t need to know that I’ve pinned your image on the screen and am drawing your nose. But, truthfully, I love your nose. I promise.

Now to you. What’s your secret stash of Zoom survival skills? I’d love to learn with you.

Here are some interesting articles.
From Psychiatric Times: https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/psychological-exploration-zoom-fatigue

About blink rates: https://pupilbox.com/blogs/blog/why-does-blink-rate-slow-computer-use; from HBR: https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-combat-zoom-fatigue

Why not let life be complex?

This US Presidential Inauguration Day, a group of riders on white horses wearing white coats will ride into Washington, D.C. to assume power.

At the same time, a group of black-coated riders on black horses will ride away.

Peace will be restored and the world will be generous and safe.

(I doubt you believe that.)

I’m just hoping that in the months to come we move away from the good-guy bad-guy rhetoric that has been polarizing this nation.

For the record: I believe there are bad guys. Folks who lie, distort the truth, incite violence or execute it, deliberately hurt others, or commit crimes against humanity. And there may be evil.

Just because I deeply disagree with someone doesn’t turn them into a villain.

Even when it doesn’t make for good headlines, life is complex.

Taking a page from nature

Nature is complex. She does not divide herself up into good guys and bad guys.

This week, a huge limb from a neighbor’s madrona tree crashed on our property, crushing our fence and leaving the property vulnerable to deer visitors. Of course, this happened when my husband was off-island.

Imagine how the story would have been covered by two polarized news sources.

Here’s what the anti-madrona-ists believe:

The tree is a nuisance, susceptible to fungal infections for which there are no cures. Any small disturbance of its land, whether from heavy equipment damage or watering can kill the tree. A tree or limb drop can cause hundreds of dollars of damage to property, including land and vehicles, and take hours to clean up. The madrona is BAD.

They might have covered my story like this

DEADLY TREE LIMB CAUSES HUGE DAMAGE
A limb weighing several hundred pounds dropped from a madrona Monday night, crushing a fence and nearby viburnum bush. With the fence open, the property became vulnerable to dozens of deer predators circling the area. The viburnum now is in critical care. The property owner said, “I don’t know what to do. The limb came from a tree on my neighbor’s land and half of it is on their property. And our property is now at risk.”

The pro-madrona-ists believe:

The madrona is a northwest native and belongs here. It thrives in undisturbed, dry, sandy soils and coastal bluffs. The tree needs no care and can survive both drought and winter floods. Its twisted branches, red-gold bark, and cankers glow spectacularly when hit by the late afternoon sun. The tree is GOOD.

Their coverage:

TREE DAMAGE BRINGS NEIGHBORS TOGETHER
Two neighbors came out of their Covid isolation to work together this week to clean up a madrona limb that had dropped between their properties. The tree’s owners helped cut the tree with their chain saw, free the fence, and resurrect the deer netting. The event provided a perfect opportunity for the fence-neighbors to safe socialize outdoors. The fence’s owner reported, “It was great to catch up. We hadn’t talked in a year.”

Both stories were true.

Let life be complex

Picking sides sounds silly until we catch ourselves doing it all the time. Why not make a shift as we move into the new year?

Here’s my plan:

Allow life to be complex. Simple is good for headlines. Complexity is good for eco-systems and human relations.

Appreciate context. How we frame an issue or event dictates what we see.

Be wary of first reactions. They can be knee-jerk. A bit of detachment supports better inquiry.

Ask more questions. That includes questions to my side as well as the other sides–if we have to have sides.

Look for some good. It’s not “Pollyanna” to enter situations looking for the good and allowing those we don’t understand “the benefit of the doubt,” at least at first.

Let the beautiful and difficult dance together. Yes, cleaning up fallen madrona is a pain. And yes, I adore the tree. Both/and.

Returning to the Presidential Inauguration, I wish there would be white horses dancing through Washington streets next week. Along with black horses, chestnuts, bays, and fleabit grays, like mine. IIt would all be good–at least to someone who loves horses–and if you don’t mind the poop.

This revolution will require love

Is it OK to rage when we’re committed to practicing love?

How do we love someone whose words and actions have lead to deaths and needless suffering for millions? And when their credo of selfishness taints and threatens to destroy this county?

If love is a tender, uplifting feeling of appreciation and warmth for someone, I can’t go there.

If love is a stance that acknowledges that the world is interconnected, we’re in this together, and everyone has a right to be here, then I can love.

I don’t have to like said person. I detest most of their actions. But it’s not worth hating because hate changes me and does nothing to better the world.

A time for revolutionary love

Author/activist Valarie Kaur would say I need revolutionary love, a love that doesn’t “other” people different from me, but does not condone their actions, either.

Valarie is a civil rights activist, film-maker, lawyer, speaker, author, mother, faith leader, and seeker, who has packed an unimaginable number of accomplishments into her thirty-nine years.

I listened to her speak in conversation with two other amazing souls, Parker Palmer, educator and activist, and Carrie Newcomer, songwriter and peacemaker. They spoke on Newcomer-Palmer’s “The Growing Edge Podcast,” which I recommend.

Valarie became known to many through her stunning 2017 TED talk, featured below, “3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage,” which led to her just-published book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.

She launched her path as an activist and documentary film-maker when a close family friend, a member of the Sikh faith, was the first person murdered in a hate crime post 9-11. Then, when she witnessed racism and police aggression while filming and was herself arrested, she decided to add a law degree to her theology training. When she speaks she is serious and joyfully uplifting, eloquent in the languages of compassion and social justice, birthing, mothering, meditation, and civil rights.

Got rage?

Valarie knows the micro and major aggressions directed daily at people of color. In the Newcomer-Palmer interview, Valerie spoke about seeing her father subjected to a racial insult in the presence of her son. She added,

“To rage to protect that which we most love is worthy.”

Rage is not the opposite of love. When we love deeply, the correct response against systemic bigotry and injustice may be rage.

To sanctify our rage and help it serve others, we must work with it. Too often, people stay stuck in grief and rage until it calcifies within them.

She continued:

“When we don’t give rage a safe container for expression–when we don’t move through our rage–it’s easy when it stays contained in our bodies to harden into something like hate.”

Parker added, “Or into depression, which is where I think a lot of people are… A lot of depressions are bottled anger.”

Valarie believes that white supremacy often reflects frozen grief for a country no longer here (and that maybe never was).

We all need safe spaces to work through our grief and speak our rage, without keeping it locked within us or lashing out reactively.

In the hands of someone committed to social justice, rage, grounded in compassion, can become a fierce sword.

Moreover, rage and grief can provide fuel for creative energy, which I need these days.

Keeping the flow

I’ve just started painting with acrylic paints and learned the hard way what happens when they dry out. Watercolors can be reconstituted with water, not so acrylics. The hardened blob of blue paint I cut from a tube was useless.

Similarly, I can’t let rage or grief dry out my heart.

Fortunately, when I paint, sing, or write, I have a way to move my feelings. While painting, I pick colors, like crimson red, burnt sienna, and cadmium orange, that speak to me, then see what comes forth. When I allow my feelings to flow, without clinging to them or justifying them, what emerges on the paper may surprise me.

Curiosity and wonder keep me going.

Softening with joy

I can throw a tube of paint away.

I’m not sure what it will take to help soften the many hardened hearts in this country. Listening to their stories? Practicing compassion?

I don’t have gobs of love to share, not the sentimental kind, at least, but I can offer compassion.

At the same time, I can work my rage and keep my soul soft by playing with colors.

A vibrant violet brings me heart-warming joy.

As the remarkably ebullient Valarie Kaur offers,

“Joy reminds us of everything that is good and beautiful and worth fighting for.  Joy gives us energy for the long labor.”

 

Is your head stuck in the sand? (Hint: neither is the ostrich’s)

How much news can one take?

My working answer is simple: it depends.

My friend Dan used to work as a crime reporter. Armed with his journalistic lens of objectivity, he saw horrible stuff, yet he was able to distill it into readable print. He likes keeping up with the national news and staying informed. Although he’s distressed about what is happening, the news hasn’t brought him down personally.

I’m different. I’m sensitive to the news, especially the onslaught of bad-getting-badder news. It sends me into fear, agitation, and waves of “awful-ing.” I was holding my ground until the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the start of the Supreme Court nomination conversations. Then, I started going down.

My spurt of anxiety wasn’t helping me or the nation.

I have to stay careful about how much news I imbibe. Before consuming more, I ask, “Will I be able to do something constructive with this?” or “Will there be an action for me to take?” Often the answer is “no.”

Does that mean I’ve cut myself off from the news? Not exactly, because I live in an ecosystem where I trust people like Dan and my husband (who probably reads more than he can tolerate), to alert me to what I need to know. In a community, some have the interests and constitution that allows them to “digest” the news for those of us who have a weaker tolerance.

We all rely on others, to some extent, to share the news. We need to carefully choose the digesters, disseminators, gatekeepers, and curators we trust. Do they care about the truth? Are they open to diverse perspectives? How much do they let their own biases and emotions (which we all have) temper what they share?

Staying out of the sand

I don’t want to keep my head buried in the sand. Fun factoid: neither does an ostrich.

According to popular myth, ostriches avoid danger by burying their heads in the sand. I grew up imagining this enormous, flightless creature, who weighs 350 pounds and measures nearly nine feet tall, standing with his butt in the air and his head under the sand. Not a very safe position. Nor a breathable one.

And not at all true. First, the ostrich’s first line of defense will always be fleeing. They can run at speeds above forty miles an hour–faster than most animals (see below). The claws on an ostrich can be deadly. One good kick can kill a lion.

So why the misconception? It may be because ostriches, both male and female, take turns, a couple of times a day, putting their heads briefly into the large sandpit where they’ve buried their eggs.

Second, the ostrich has a small, sandy-colored head. Seen from a distance, the ostrich may look like it has its head under the ground when it’s just bending down nibbling insects. Or the ostrich may have flopped to the ground, its head and body blending with the terrain. That’s its last recourse to avoid being seen when it can’t outrun a predator,

The ostrich needs to stay up on the local news and is constantly scanning the environment. That’s not stuck in the sand.

The difficult news that I can digest

What looks like having one’s head in the sand may, upon closer inspection, mean one is contributing in a different way.

Do my limits on national news mean I can stand only good news? No. I can deal with news about death and serious illness. Last week, a friend died unexpectedly, another friend entered her last stages of cancer, and a close friend was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Another lost her dad. This kind of news breaks my heart, yet leaves it whole. Death will always be part of life.

This is news I can digest and work with. Feeling the grief of others builds my compassion.

Plus, I can take action. I can call the friend who lost her dad. I can visit (safely) the friend who may be dying. I can explore how to stay connected and support my friend with Alzheimer’s, without succumbing to the “tragedy narrative” about dementia in our culture.

Part of my role, in my ecosystem of friends and connections, is to extend caring to others dealing with grief.

Supporting each other

Dan will consume large quantities of news and help digest it for people like me.

Others of us may find an inner calm that can help steady those who are buffeted by the national storms. We may pray or offer our visions of a positive world. We find pieces of work that are ours to do.

We all have different roles to play in the apocalyptic drama we are facing.

We each need to discern what allows us to stay mentally and physically healthy while listening for how to best contribute.

We’re in this together.

If the news diminishes your energy, and you can’t watch, appreciate the curators in your life.

Give where you can.

We all have to stay strong.

 

Saying “yes/and” to dementia.

Saying “joy” and “dementia” in one sentence could sound like an oxymoron.

Like many, I have a fear that I might someday lose part of my mind.

Dementia’s not a far fetched concern: the stats on its occurrence rise significantly for every year we pass eighty.

Being with dementia can be tough for both patients and families. I’ve seen it up close. My brilliant scientist uncle was reduced by Alzheimer’s to being like a little boy. A favorite cousin spent half her life worrying that she might die from early-onset dementia, as had her Mom. She did.

And yet, heartbreak is not the whole story about dementia.

What may be almost as difficult as living with dementia is living within the narrative society has created. 

We fixate on what people with dementia have lost, rather than the capacities they still have.

Patients and their families may feel ashamed by the condition as if it’s something to hide. It’s tempting to want to tuck patients away, where their deficiencies won’t disturb anyone.

Dementia is stigmatized.

My recent podcast guests, Mary Fridley and Susan Massad, of the Eastside Institute in New York City, call this dementia story “the tragedy narrative.” 

This outdated story keeps us from exploring the possibilities for development, joy, and relationship that dementia has not taken away.

Mary and Susan are offering us a new narrative, using the vehicle of improvisational theatre to help us look at dementia in new ways.

The lenses we use shape what we see

Susan, retired from a fifty-year career as an MD, says that when you look at dementia through a medical lens, what you see is an individual problem that medicine can’t fix. The medical model sees deterioration and offers no hope.

But that’s not the only lens through which dementia can be viewed.

If we look through a social-relational lens, dementia is not just a problem for the patient. It’s a condition that affects many, including family, doctors, caregivers, and friends. Susan and Mary refer to this community affected by dementia as the “dementia ensemble,” a reference to the world of performance they know well.

Yes, dementia can take away memory and some mental powers.

Yet life is about much more than brain-powered activity. It’s also about laughing, loving, using our imaginations, being social, creating, and enjoying music, art. and nature. When we only see brain decline, we miss seeing the range of capacities people with dementia still have.

Towards a more humane outlook

Even if you don’t know anyone with dementia, it’s important to notice the idea, implicit in the tragedy narrative, that one needs to be fully-functioning, cognitively, to be a complete human being. Brains are good; they’re just not all of what makes us human.

No one, whatever their brain capacity, deserves to be written off.

When we devalue a group of people, we devalue ourselves, making what it is to be human that much smaller. 

In our brain-oriented, success-driven, results-oriented world, some categories of people can be seen as incomplete, inferior, or even not necessary, including people with:

  • Dementia
  • Developmental disabilities, like Down’s Syndrome
  • Brain Injuries
  • Parkinsons and other degenerative conditions that can affect how we think and function*

No wonder we try to tuck such people away, where they can be taken care of without being seen or honored.

*(When we start thinking this way, the list rapidly expands to include older people, people with other differences, crazy owners of Springer Spaniels, etc.)

Using improvisational theatre to bring a more life-filled approach to the dementia community

Mary and Susan run improv theatre groups in which the dementia ensemble, the community of people affected by dementia, are invited to play together, without consideration of their cognitive capabilities. Patients play with caregivers, family, and others. Improv opens up a way for everyone to connect, laugh, and have fun.

The key to improv lives in two magic words, “Yes/and.” For dementia patients, who hear a constant barrage of “No, that’s not true,” and “No, you can’t do that or say that,” it can be tremendously positive to hear the word, “Yes.” In improv you affirm and say yes to any “offer” your partner makes (such as a “The moon is looking purple tonight”), however fantastical it might sound. As an improv player, your job is to empower your partner. (“Yes, it’s purple, and I see a big green halo around it.”)

When my mother’s mind was deteriorating with old-age dementia, she talked a lot about “going home.” Talking “sense” to her was useless. It worked far better to play a bit, asking, “When are you leaving Mom?” and “Who will be there?” “What are you looking forward to doing?” Saying “No” to her stopped the conversation. Saying “yes/and” kept the connection going.

(I know “Yes/and” doesn’t apply to all situations, but it sure helps change the culture of “No, but” that can surround dementia patients.)

All the world’s a stage

As faculty at the Eastside Institute, Mary and Susan are skilled in social therapeutics, “an approach to human development and social change that relates to people of all ages and life circumstances as social performers and creators of their lives.”

Like actors performing together on the stage of life.

In a great play, like Shakespeare’s, not all roles require speaking. An actor may stand on stage, saying barely a word, but you still know her presence is important to the scene. The actor playing the fool often has a key role.

In life, as in stage performance, many roles are possible, including valuable roles played by people affected by dementia.

I still pray that I won’t lose parts of my mind. It hurt to see my cousin Brenda’s decline. Yet when I was with her, I loved her smile, kindness towards others, imagination, love of family, and how she kept making art,up until the end of her life.

She would have loved to do improv. I think she would have been great at it.

If I acquire dementia, I will be comforted if the people around me know that I am still here, that I still matter, that I enjoy laughing, dancing and making art, and that my presence has a purpose, even if that purpose lies beyond the realm of what any of us can understand.

PS You can hear the podcast interview this post was drawn from over on the Vital Presence podcast. Click here to listen.

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