Comedian Mandy Nolan taught dementia sufferers how to laugh again

Mandy Nolan is performing with Ellen Briggs in ‘Women Like Us’ at The Builders Club in Wollongong, September 22-23. Picture: Supplied

Mandy Nolan is performing with Ellen Briggs in ‘Women Like Us’ at The Builders Club in Wollongong, September 22-23. Picture: Supplied

Stand-up comedian and writer Mandy Nolan may not be a household name, but she does credit herself to having taught comedy to hundreds (including Hannah Gadsby), but her toughest students couldn’t remember a thing.

Mandy Nolan. Picture: Supplied

Mandy Nolan. Picture: Supplied

The middle-aged mum-of-five never actively pursued comedy as a career path, she just “did it because she could” until she realised in her 30s the career had chosen her.

“I [thought] okay, what if it’s not just about getting on stage and the narcissism of being a comedian ... what if it’s about helping people re-frame their challenges,” Nolan said.

“That’s why I started running programs for people with mental health issues and programs like Shoot it From the Hip Replacement [comedy workshops for Senior’s Week].”

Read More: Fight for your human rights: dementia advocate

Skinny Milk - Mandy Nolan and Ellen Briggs

That lead to the performer being granted government funding for a few years to work with dementia patients using comedy as therapy.

After her first class she realised all the tools she had used previously were not going to work and by the third class she was ready to give up.

The Byron Bay local describes having a weird “trippy and very new age” moment where a solution suddenly appeared.

“This sentence came into my head: ‘all they had was the moment, and give them a moment’,” Nolan recalled.

“So I just turned around and I went ‘Neville, I heard you were an amazing dancer, can you show me how you and Carol were dancing at the cabaret’ … then he goes ‘sure thing’ picks her up and starts doing this hysterical twirling around dance. It was like finding the key.”

Read More: Young boxer in nan's corner in dementia fight

One woman hadn’t spoken in two years but dressed as an Arabian princess and was 'so funny and outrageous' in the final performance, according to Nolan.

Improvisation seemed to tap into hidden talents so Nolan worked to their strengths.

The results were astounding with the program featuring in a research paper from Southern Cross University and on an episode of SBS’s Insight, “Dancing with Dementia” .

Research author Associate Professor John Stevens said his report showed dementia did not prevent participants from laughing appropriately or successfully creating and performing comedy.

“The data suggest that the program may have therapeutic benefits as improvements in memory, learning, sociability, communication and self esteem were demonstrated,” he said.

The comedy program ran for eight weeks at a time with an end of term performance for family and carers.

While the participants may not have been able to remember they had been part of the group the week before, their emotions changed for the better and their competency with the tasks grew.

One woman hadn’t spoken in two years but dressed as an Arabian princess and was “so funny and outrageous” in the final performance, according to Nolan.

“Her daughter nearly fell off the chair,” she said.

Laughter is beneficial in many aspects of life, Nolan believes.

Enrolling in a comedy course or simply exploring your inner humorist can boost confidence, help overcome life’s challenges and gives people “permission to have fun again”.

Mandy Nolan is performing with Ellen Briggs in ‘Women Like Us’ at The Builders Club in Wollongong, September 22-23. 

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