Learning My Lines

“How on earth do you memorize all those lines??!”

This is one of those questions actors get all the time. Back when I was a child, we memorized poems in elementary school (do they still do that?), but as the world becomes more digitized and we don’t even have to remember phone numbers, people see memorization as some sort of magic trick.

I always answer, “That’s the easy part!” Learning lines is the bare minimum of an actor’s responsibility. But yes, it is important, and yes, we do have to learn the lines exactly as written, so it takes work.

Say I have the line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” (Okay, that’s from a sonnet, not a play, but it makes a good example.)

I need to learn that line verbatim, and I need to know it so well that it will come out of my mouth even if an audience member’s cell phone rings twenty times or a stray cat walks across the stage. (Yes, both have happened to me.) In a pinch I could paraphrase and say, “Should I talk about the differences between you and hot weather?” But that doesn’t have the music of the original; it’s not poetic at all. And I definitely don’t want to say, “Shall I compare thee to . . . ummmm . . . oh heck, it’s on the tip of my tongue . . .”. No, no, no. I have to know those lines cold.

When I first started researching dementia care, learning lines was the last thing on my mind. But then I attended several workshops with Teepa Snow. They call her the “dementia whisperer” because she has so many ways to connect with people who have dementia. I learned a lot from Teepa, including brain science, communication tools, and a way of thinking about the progression of the disease that’s really positive.

I even learned some lines — simple phrases that made my life as a caregiver much easier and more rewarding. And I learned one thing I should never say again.

The line she told me to erase from my script was, “Don’t you remember?” Teepa taught us that this line is torture to a person with dementia. If my mom isn’t sure where her hearing aid is and thinks it’s been stolen, it doesn’t help to say, “Don’t you remember? You took it out and asked me to put it in my purse because the restaurant was too loud. Don’t you remember that??”

No, she doesn’t remember. She’s afraid she’s been robbed, and now I’m reminding her that something even scarier is happening: she’s losing her memory.

Instead, I learned a valuable line from Teepa’s script, a two-word sentence I need to be able to say at a moment’s notice: “I’m sorry.” I learned to say, “I’m sorry, Mom, I put your hearing aid in my purse to keep it safe after you took it out. That must have scared you to think it had been stolen! I’m so sorry. Do you want it now?” By saying “I’m sorry,” I preserve my mom’s dignity and reassure her that I care about how she feels.

At first it was hard to apologize for things I knew weren’t my fault. It felt dishonest and manipulative. But I got used to it. Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that when I tell Mom I’m sorry, I’m not being the least bit dishonest. I am sorry that she has to struggle with dementia. I am sorry that she gets confused and scared. The least I can do is try not to make it worse.

The other line I learned from Teepa is “Tell me about that.” This is one of the best sentences I have ever added to my script. When Mom says she liked it better at her old apartment, I don’t have to say, “Well, Mom, that’s too bad. You live in assisted living now. You have dementia. I wouldn’t feel safe leaving you alone in your old apartment, so you might as well get used to it here.” That might be exactly what I’m thinking, but I don’t have to say it.

Instead I say, “Tell me about that.” And she can tell me how much she liked her balcony, or how she misses having her own washer and dryer. She could be talking about the last place she lived, or an apartment she had forty years ago, or an imaginary place her brain has created. It doesn’t matter: she’s telling me what’s on her mind, and it’s important for me to remember that she still has a mind.

I like this script better than the old one. I know these lines by heart. Mom responds well to them. She feels heard, I feel relieved, and we can enjoy each other’s company a while longer.


Hanging out with Mom and my buddy Elisa

This post is part of a series. You can read part one here and part two here.

4 thoughts on “Learning My Lines

  1. Dear Carolyn,

    I am enjoying your blog and am writing to ask if I may share it as a resource for people at St. Bartholomew’s and Congregation Bet Haverim working on “building dementia-friendly congregations”? I’m a long-time “print person” and am not certain of blog etiquette. Thank you.


    “One of the values of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

    > WordPress.com

  2. I have so enjoyed reading your posts. This o e reminds me how important reflective listening is in communication. We are always so fast to express our feelings rather than truly listening and responding to the person we are speaking with.

  3. Pingback: Improvisation, or The Art of Saying Yes | Lifelong Metamorphoses

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