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Improv Comedy Can Help You Age Better

Being spontaneous keeps the mind flexible, inspires joy and deters dementia


Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report

(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com)

For 86-year-old Helen Haugsnes, it started with a flyer.

“By George, in December, I saw a notice in our laundry room, and it said ‘Second City for Retirees,'” says the native Chicagoan. “And I signed up.”

Six months later, Haugsnes found herself performing an improv comedy show with nine other older adults at the famed theater, which launched the careers of Tina Fey, Bill Murray and hundreds more. “The audience was family members, and they were all so amazed by us,” she says. “We did our skits and everyone was cheering! Everybody had a wonderful time.”

We’ve already lived through situations that twentysomethings can’t imagine. What do we have to lose?

— Helen Haugsnes

Haugsnes is part of Humor Doesn’t Retire, a series of eight-week comedy courses offered by Second City to people over 55. The program has registered more than 250 older students over two years, many of whom find themselves energized by improv. “You can see these people just lighting up at the opportunity to be with each other and share an artistic experience,” beams Kerry Sheehan, Second City’s Education and Training Program President. “[It’s] amazing, and such a learning experience for the rest of us.”

In recent years, similar senior-oriented classes have popped up from Philadelphia to San Francisco, fueled by the growing number of boomers who want to perform as they age. But students are finding that the advantages of off-the-cuff comedy go beyond a little time in the spotlight. Improv offers a built-in support group as well as cognitive benefits that help you stay mentally flexible into your 60s, 70s and even 80s. As Haugsnes says, “It lets us take off.”

Improv Your Brain

Unlike standup comedy, which is solitary and rehearsed, improv is spontaneous — made up entirely on the spot — and usually performed in a group. In a typical improv game, your team must create a funny scene based off a third-person suggestion. That scene’s success relies on active listening, being in the moment and building on others’ ideas — cognitive abilities that fade as we age. Improv keeps them limber.

“Improv gets your brain firing in new ways,” says Sarah Nowak, a teacher at The People’s Improv Theater in New York City. “It helps you to make connections and reinvigorate your imagination. It improves your communication and listening skills.” She compares it to child’s playtime, since students are constantly creating, with few boundaries: “Improv is essentially turning the kind of imagination play we did as kids into live theater.”

Sheehan likens improv to mental exercise (“It’s like yoga for your brain”) and says that Second City is exploring it as part of an overarching wellness program for older people: “We’ve really started to dive into its therapeutic side.”

That initiative is supported by research, which shows that improv can help memory and stave off dementia. In one experiment by Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, preliminary results showed that early-stage Alzheimer’s patients who practiced improv experienced, “feelings of success and empowerment,” as well as an improved quality of life.

Improv Your Life

On top of cognitive benefits, improv’s chief plus for older people is the communal aspect. “We’re drawing [older] folks into a social situation,” says Sheehan. “They’re engaging other people. They’re getting out of the house.” This interaction is crucial to well-being as we age, as isolation and loneliness are strongly associated with memory decline, immunity problems and even heart disease.

The social importance is obvious to instructors, who see these people get excited when they come into contact with other students. “I like seeing them feel empowered by their own voices and delighted by their classmates,” says Ashley Ward, an improv teacher at The Nerdist School in Los Angeles. “It brings so much joy to your life and you basically spend every class laughing.”

“When we’re together it’s a very special relationship,” says Haugsnes of her own Second City improv team. “Making new friends in your advanced years, it’s usually the same ol’, same ol’, but not with this.”

The selflessness of improv — your job as an improviser is to make others look good — is a natural boon to developing these connections. “It’s all about ensemble,” says Sheehan. “It’s all about making other people shine. It’s very outward oriented.”

For older folks, who may be preoccupied by personal situations, it’s a good way to take the focus off themselves for awhile. “We find that’s very important, especially for people who are going through an illness or other challenge. It kind of has to go away in an improv class,” says Sheehan.

Improv can even help caregivers, thanks to its focus on imaginative solutions. “Improv is creative, and you have to be creative to respond to some of the challenges life throws at you,” says Pam Atwood, the Director of Dementia Services at Hebrew Healthcare in West Hartford, Conn. She teaches improv to loved ones and her staff, and has seen a difference in how they deal with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. “We see our staff being more creative in their responses,” she says. “[And] when we teach [caregivers] to be in the moment, they have reduced stress.”

Ultimately, for older people, there’s no real downside to improv beyond a little stage fright. But, as octogenarian Haugsnes puts it, “The teachers say we have a world of experience. We’ve already lived through situations that twentysomethings can’t imagine. What do we have to lose?”

Check out Second City’s Humor Doesn’t Retire website for more information.

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