Danette McCarthy was head of St. Croix Festival Theatre when she read a short play about memory loss in 2013. That work, "Steering into the Skid," by playwrights Deborah Ann Percy and Arnold Johnston, was an entry in the theater's one-act play competition.
The play takes place in a loving couple's car as, month by month, they are forced to address the early but inevitable progression of dementia.
"An audience member said to me that it would be perfect for doing community outreach," McCarthy recalled. "At first I was like, hmm. But as I looked at the projections for dementia over the next 20, 30 years, I saw the need."
McCarthy subsequently created the Remember Project, which uses theater as a catalyst for hard conversations around memory loss. Before the pandemic, the project was slated to present short plays across Minnesota, including in host communities Benson, Winona, Park Rapids, Pine Island and Marshall.
Now, those presentations are online but the mission remains the same: using the arts to build dementia-friendly communities.
"It's to help people feel familiar, less afraid and less stigmatized about memory loss," McCarthy said. "Over the years, most families are in crisis long before they come to know what their resources are."
Sometimes the signs of dementia are as simple as someone putting a box of cereal in the freezer or pasteurized milk in a pantry. Sometimes people with memory loss put themselves in peril by wandering away from safe surroundings for hours or days.
Dementia is a cognitive impairment that leads to reduced brain function. Alzheimer's is the most well-known memory loss disease but there are others, including traumatic brain injuries and Parkinson's.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. By 2060, the number of Alzheimer's disease cases is predicted to rise to an estimated 14 million people, with minority populations being affected the most, according to the CDC.
Women are nearly two times more likely to be affected by Alzheimer's disease than men, primarily because women live longer.
Launched in 2015, the Remember Project (rememberproject.org) uses plays as "engagement tools."
An audience watches a short play, then breaks into small groups to discuss what they have witnessed. Along with "Steering into the Skid," the project is presenting "In the Garden," about adult children coming together to care for their father — not always in agreement — and "Riding the Waves," about a woman whose dementia ebbs and flows as her children come to terms with various memories from the past and present.
The three plays are anthologized as "The MemoryCare Plays," edited by Margaret A. Noel.
McCarthy noted that going virtual has had unexpected benefits. Her project has reached "hundreds of communities," and she's in discussion about a virtual tour in Ohio.
"The word is traveling very quickly," she said of the project. "It's really been fascinating. I was nervous about whether we could have an impact virtually, but a wonderful thing that has happened is that we have adult children from different states who participated in the same event."
Her team just finished filming a video of "In The Garden," for a virtual tour in mid-February. They're also collaborating with CLIMB Theatre to present a play based on a children's book about a grandfather and granddaughter.
The Remember Project gained a new home one year ago with the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging.
"Dementia is a thief, reducing people's lives because of safety and function," McCarthy said. "Usually, the care partner will have a similar experience as the sufferer. They're not able to travel or to do all the things they used to, so their lives get smaller, too.
"But we want to help everybody have as big a life as they can for as long as they can."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390