USF theater students lift holiday spirit of Alzheimer’s caregivers

USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, caregivers holiday show, theater students

Bridgette Dreher, (left), a USF senior studying theater design, reads from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, while her fellow students act out a scene, playing the Whos down in Whoville. The students put on a holiday performance for a family caregivers support group at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.

The caregivers who attended their long-standing monthly support group at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute Thursday were treated to some much needed holiday respite.

A group of students from the USF School of Theatre and Dance visited and performed several light-hearted holiday songs and a couple of readings.  During the theatrical interpretation of Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, student actor Joseph Montalto, who played the Grinch, elicited smiles and laughter from the audience with his creative use of chairs that doubled as a sleigh and a chimney.

“It is very stressful to care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Eileen Poiley, director of education at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.  “This is amplified during the holidays when the extra demands on a caregiver’s time and energy can be overwhelming… The emotional stress is often the hardest – when you see your loved one decline and not be able to participate in all the holiday activities like he or she did in the past.”

USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, caregivers holiday show, theater students, support group

USF theater student Joseph Montalto amused the audience with his portrayal of the Grinch. Here he improvises stealing the “Who’s feast” using a plateful of holiday snacks put out for the caregivers.

The 15 caregivers at Thursday’s support group, facilitated by Poiley, were the spouses or adult children of patients living with Alzheimer’s – some for several years and others for more than a decade.

“Many of them can’t go out and leave their loved ones home alone for something they might like to do, like attending a party or a night at the theatre,” Poiley said.  “So, bringing this entertainment to the support group is our holiday gift to them.”

USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, caregivers holiday show, theater students

The theatre group performs “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Poiley worked with Amanda Clark, marketing director for the School of Theatre and Dance, to arrange the impromptu performance.  Earlier this year, she had collaborated with Clark on a USF production of Body Stories, which included the story of a daughter who flew from New York to Tampa to visit her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease and is cared for at home by a live-in caregiver.  Poiley consulted with the cast to help create a realistic portrayal of a family affected by the memory-robbing disease.

Nearly 1 million people in Florida are caregivers to an Alzheimer’s patient, and many report high levels of stress and consequent health complications, the national Alzheimer’s Association says in its annual report.

USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, caregivers holiday show, support group

The holiday entertainment provided some light moments for those who care for parents or spouses with Alzheimer’s disease.

Poiley has written a tip sheet to help caregivers cope with the holidays: See Enjoying the Holidays: Tips for Alzheimer’s Family Caregivers.

For more information on the caregiver support groups offered by the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, please visit: http://health.usf.edu/byrd/supportgroups.htm

USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, caregivers holiday show, theater students

Clockwise from left: Amanda Clark, marketing director of USF School of Theatre and Dance; theater students Ryan Bernier, Joseph Montalto, Bridgette Dreher and Raechelle Egan; with Eileen Poiley, director of education at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute.

-         Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications