Time, time, time. Caregivers measure it in minutes, hours, days. But for someone with dementia, time is like a broken clock. It’s a concept that no longer seems useful or needed.
I’m the kind of person who has spent decades running around trying to fit just one more thing into already busy days. One consequence of this habit is that I’m often late. There just isn’t enough time in the universe for me to complete the tasks I set for myself and still be punctual. I sincerely regret the number of times I’ve left good friends waiting for me. But when I’m with my mom, I have the opposite problem. Ever busy me finds it nearly impossible to fill time spent alone with her in a satisfying way.
Usually I tell Mom stories. Sometimes she’s lucid enough to laugh or say yes or offer a one syllable comment. But more often she’s only engaged with me for a few minutes before she goes into Sleep mode — that restful state that resembles your car’s neutral gear. How can you use this time to feel like you’re connecting with someone whose reality is so different from your own?
I often play music to get us both tuned into the same frequency. The sound of Chuck Berry or the Everly Brothers will keep her attention for a little while. Now and then she tries to clap and can occasionally get her hands lined up the right way. But after a song or two, she goes back to her netherworld — unless the music is very uplifting. Tunes that keep her involved include “Rockin’ Robin” and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. “Happy” is so infectious I have seen it revive a room full of dementia patients for the full four minutes it plays. The song has an almost magical ability to make people smile and move.
Good times come and go but there are still many frustrating moments when you want to pull a dementia patient in and they just stay on their distant planet. What do you do to invite your loved one into your world? What tricks do you use to connect with them when the wires are frayed and their glance keeps moving to some far off place?
Caregivers run into problems all the time. Some are more devastating than others. You can cry and wring your hands. But sometimes, if you remind yourself, you can also laugh. Finding the humor in stressful situations can provide a powerful way to cope with real challenges.
Go ahead and laugh — it’s therapeutic
A young Dutch researcher named J.H.E. Blom, created a project to help get caregivers to laugh more as a way of easing their emotional burdens. Studies show that humor can have a positive effect on health and can promote happier feelings in tough situations. Blom looked for ways to help caregivers laugh more in daily life.
The concept made me recall a story I heard from a nurse who was interviewing caregivers. She said she had talked with a caregiver who faced a constant battle from her loved one whenever it was time to change the Depends. Somewhere along the way, the caregiver invented “The Diaper Dance”. She put the clean Depends on her head like a hat, and started dancing around until the her loved one started laughing and dancing too. Once the element of humor took over, all resistance dropped and that diaper got changed.
It’s easy enough to come up with funny ideas like this when you’re relaxed. The problem is, we often forget to think of these things when we’re stressed. Blom’s solution is a concept called Amarant. Caregivers were asked to create tokens that reminded them of humorous moments. They could be a funny cartoon from the newspaper or just an object that reminded them of a funny moment — like a photo of someone wearing a Depends hat? In the study, people used markers and stickers to create pictures or reminders of things that made them laugh.
After they created their “tokens” of humor, they displayed them all around the house. Blom’s goal was to have the caregiver “subtly confronted” with the pictures so that they might trigger positive emotions connected to funny memories in situations that were not too funny. Caregivers also made “inspirational cards” that asked questions designed to produce memories of laughter. Cards asked caregivers to recall the last situation when they wanted to hold in their laughter but just couldn’t — or to remember accidentally making a joke. Caregivers wrote these recollections on their cards so they could use them to help produce a laugh during more stressful times.
It would not be too hard to try this experiment in your own home. Considering all the depressing research we see about drugs, side effects, and caregiver health problems, it’s refreshing to come across a study that promotes humor. Laughter is the world’s cheapest medicine, no one hold a patent on it, and it’s absolutely impossible to overdose.