Quick Thinkers At 90
Attorney’s volunteer improv program strengthens Bronx seniors’ cognitive abilities. And they get off some good lines, too.
Staff Writer
Attorney Jonathan Goldberg leads monthly improv sessions for seniors at the Kittay House in the Bronx. Michael Datikash
Attorney Jonathan Goldberg leads monthly improv sessions for seniors at the Kittay House in the Bronx. Michael Datikash

If it’s Thursday, it must be improv night at Kittay House.

In the basement auditorium of the independent senior living apartment building in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, three dozen residents are sitting in the rows of folding chairs one recent evening. In front of them, four members of their ranks have taken their place at a row of seats facing the crowd, alongside three people, probably 40 years their junior, who are outfitted in blue T-shirts that read, “Cherub Angels.”

The former, in the words of Zelda Fassler, one of the seniors in the featured row, are the “Kittay Players,” residents in the monthly comedy improvisation program led by Jonathan Goldberg, a New York commercial litigation attorney who moonlights as a volunteer at several Jewish organizations and is founder of Cherub Improv, a nonprofit that brings humor to underserved populations in local hospitals and homeless shelters and nursing homes.

Kittay House, as far as is known, is the only senior housing site in the New York area that offers such participation-encouraged improv on a regular basis.

Goldberg, a “42-year-old who has not met the right girl,” is one of the trio of Cherub Improv performers in the T-shirts this night. He will, as usual at Kittay House, lead the self-selected seniors sitting next to him in a series of “warm-up” exercises that prepare improv experts to perform unscripted funny skits and theater acts at the drop of a suggestion. That’s how the folks at the Second City clubs and the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” TV show got started.

“It’s essentially making things up on the spot,” Goldberg tells the crowd. Many people in the audience have walkers at their side. The main rule, according to Goldberg: “Say yes to everything that’s given to you.” If one performer makes a suggestion or starts a scene, go along with it. “Saying ‘yes’ to information is a form of respect. We want to make each other shine,” he said.

Then they start making things up — pretending they’re flying a kite, diapering a fussy baby, doing the laundry, etc.

Then Goldberg introduces another bit of short-form improv, a quick back-and-forth conversation between a pair of people. The first says a sentence on any subject that enters his or her mind; the second quickly responds; the first offers a rejoinder.

Edna Nelkin, “92 years old and a few months,” is Goldberg’s partner in this. They’re sitting side-by-side.

Nelkin leans in and purrs in a strong Brooklyn accent, “So, you’re 42 years old. When are you going to get married?”

The personal nature of the question catches Goldberg momentarily off guard. After a few moments he looks at an imaginary “magic cube” in his hands, the small black objects we played with as kids, which presents a selection of statements in a small window at the bottom when you tip it over.

Goldberg reads the cube’s answer: “Only time will tell.”

Nelkin looks Goldberg in the eyes: “Don’t give me that bull****.”

The audience roars.

So does Goldberg.

This is improv at its best.

“It was perfect,” Goldberg says. “Improv improves your listening skills. She was really listening.

“I love it when other people get the laughs,” he says. “I love it when they shine.”

While usually considered a young person’s art form, improv has in recent years been incorporated as drama therapy in a growing number of settings for the elderly, a means of strengthening their social skills, lessening their isolation, reducing depression, and, in extreme cases, fighting the signs of dementia.

“These activities are important not only to preserve cognitive health but also to alleviate depression and loneliness, teach teamwork, and to promote healthy lifestyles,” Dr. Joe Verghese, a neurology researcher at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein School of Medicine, says in an e-mail interview with The Jewish Week.

“Improv is all about being in the moment, which for someone with memory loss … is a very safe place,” Mary O’Hara, a social worker at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, told NPR. “There’s no experience required, there’s no script, there’s no memorization. They bring to it just their creative potential.”

If the residents at Kittay House are representative, it’s a success.

“They love being up there,” Goldberg says. “Hams,” all of them.

“They delight in this. It promotes the sense that they are not isolated,” says Arlene Richman, director of the residence. “It gives our tenants a venue for their thoughts.

“They are,” says Richman, who did not observe the exchange between Nelkin and Goldberg, “a vibrant group,” who take part in a wide array of creative arts programs available at Kittay House. “They are interested in trying new things. They are a scrappy bunch of New Yorkers.”

Research has shown that people with dementia who take part in such cognitively stimulating activities become more socially engaged and report a better quality of life. Many start interacting more with other people.

Improv gives the participants confidence. The “Kittay Players” are stars, praised in the elevator and cafeteria.

“I see it with my own eyes,” says Goldberg, who every month works in “a roomful of grandparents” — the audience and improv volunteers at Kittay House are mentally intact, but some had been shyer before Cherub Improv came around. “I observe that every time I do one of these workshops. Our workshops have brought people out.”

Goldberg and his troupe of seniors help break the stereotype that some people are tool old for improv. Seniors have lots of experience thinking on their feet.

“We don’t dumb it down at all” for an octogenarian-or-older crowd, he says. His only concession to their age: not so much “physically intense” skits, no pratfalls or running around.

Goldberg, who originally had just presented Cherub Improv (its motto is, “We wing it.”) shows at the residence on the Bronx campus of Jewish Home Lifecare, added the seniors improv workshops at the suggestion of Fassler, one of the eager participants on the recent Thursday evening.

At 80, “the baby” of the group’s performers, she has an acting and improv background — “more than 40 years ago. It was 50 years ago, when you think about it.”

She told Goldberg two years ago that the residents should act, not just sit and watch. “I wanted to get up there.”
On stage, “you can express yourself,” she says. “You learn more about yourself [in improve] “than you do going to a therapist.”

“It’s been fun,” says Nelkin, who lives at Kittay House with her husband Mort. “It’s stimulating.”

“I’m assertive. I can talk,” she says. “I’m still full of life.”

When she called Goldberg on his singlehood, she says, she was playing a role. “I don’t have a Brooklyn accent. I don’t speak that way.” She isn’t, she says, a busybody. She doesn’t use rough language.

Her Yenta role simply seemed inspired at the moment. “I’m an actress. I get into the parts.”

Friends at Kittay House tell her, “You’re really a comedian.” In her earlier life, as a jewelry storeowner, “nobody ever told me that.”

Fassler, a retired Port Authority employee and party planner who once had designs on a career in the theater, says she is thinking beyond the Kittay House improv.

She’s a big fan of the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

She’d like to appear on Letterman?

“I would love to do it.”