Laughter and Dementia

Laughter may seem out of place when you’re caring for a person with dementia. Things turn awfully grim when a loved one gets an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Yet patients often find ways to show us that laughter is the best medicine. My mom can barely speak, but she’s found many ways to make a joke.

humor and dementia

I often hear her laughing in the morning when I go to get her up from bed. We have a very sweet aide who visits on weekdays to help me with this process. It’s physically difficult because I have to transfer my mom from her bed to her wheelchair, then from the chair to the bathroom, then back to the wheelchair after we get her washed and dressed. You’d think Mom would just groan and complain the entire time we’re shifting her around. But she tries hard to get the aide and me to laugh with her. She has the full-on demented laugh — like a crazy sanitarium patient in an old movie. Sometimes she gets us going so hard, the tears roll down our face. Mom is happiest if we offer some true belly laughs.

“Janet,” I say, “Were you at a party last night?”

She looks around and giggles as if an invisible person is telling her jokes. We have a pet name for Laughing Mom. She is “Two-Martini Janet.” My mother never drank hard liquor but she cackles like a tipsy lady at a wild cocktail party.

My mother’s attachment to laughter may be extreme, but it’s not unusual for people with dementia to retain a good sense of humor despite their circumstances. The authors of The 36 Hour Day remind us that “a dementing illness does not suddenly end a person’s capacity to experience love or joy, nor does it end her ability to laugh.” Laughter, the authors say, is a “gift to help us keep our sanity in the face of trouble.” Humor also has therapeutic value. In an Australian research project on 400 nursing home residents (called the SMILE study) scientists found that “residents who received regular visits from a humour therapist saw a 20 per cent drop in agitation levels compared to those receiving standard care.”

What can you do to encourage laughter with your loved one?  Try some ideas from the SMILE study. The “humour therapist” used a combination of games, jokes and songs to promote laughter. They also had a “laughter boss” work with caregivers to find ways to inject more humor into their daily routines. During stressful times, it can be hard to find the lighter side of dementia, but with the help of Two-Martini Janet, I have learned to become my own “laughter boss.” I worked hard to earn this title and I won’t leave this job unless someone has the nerve to fire me!


Independence Day for Caregivers

Our loved ones rely on us. We want to be there for them, but caregivers need some independence, too. I’m not asking for fireworks and cannons. An hour laughing with friends can feel revolutionary. Can someone help you enjoy a bit of precious liberty?

Between the Pond and the Woods


My sister is the hero who allowed me to reclaim some independence. She’s stepped in on key occasions to help provide needed respite. Two weeks ago I was able to spend a day in New York City for the annual Yoga in Times Square celebration. This is the second year I’ve gone to NYC on the Summer Solstice to throw my yoga mat down in the middle of one of America’s busiest streets. The photo above shows the marquee of One Times Square, where the ball drops to mark the start of each New Year. On the Solstice, the City of New York blocks streets around the Square so thousands of people can practice yoga with others arriving from all parts of the world.

Although the Solstice fell two weeks before the Fourth of July, that day felt like my own personal Independence Day. The night before the solstice, my sister drove to my house to serve as temporary caregiver for my mom. I drove away early on Sunday morning and travelled two hours to the city. There were no traffic problems and I found a free parking space on a street in mid-town Manhattan. I felt like I’d won the lottery. My yoga class was wonderful and I got to visit some New York friends I rarely get to see.

Doing yoga with thirty thousand other people may not seem like the right kind of break for you. In fact, it may not sound relaxing at all. But I assure you that my single day of liberty re-charged me fully — on the physical and emotional level. I returned to my caregiver duties feeling much stronger and more compassionate. I hope that you can identify a sibling, a cousin, or a friend who can help you have your own Independence Day. Find someone you can trust who can give you the minimum break needed to restore your strength and enhance your ability to deliver care. You deserve fireworks and cannons, too, but if you keep your request low-key, you may find you don’t need that other stuff.