After recent health set-backs and a borderline hospice evaluation, my mom has had a slight rebound. She is on course to celebrate her 75th birthday next week. Somehow Mom found the energy to outlive her original diagnosis and make a winter comeback. We’re now buying candles and silly hats for a party.
Birthdays are strange when you’re caring for someone with advancing illness. They may be more complex when the illness is dementia, since our loved ones lose ground so gradually. But I’m sure these celebrations are hard for families caring for someone with cancer or another excruciating disease. You hate seeing a person suffer so much; their quality of life declines in a million tiny ways. Yet, watching them find the strength and dignity to live through terrible problems brings some weird sense of achievement.
I get the opposite reaction from another person I know. He keeps saying he’d like his life to end when he’s 70 years old — he’s perfectly healthy, by the way. But he doesn’t like watching his mom and dad go to the doctor all the time to manage chronic illnesses. He hates that fact that they don’t seem as happy as they once did. I can’t share this attitude. I get so much pleasure from small things in life. I love morning coffee and the sight of deer on my lawn. I’m delighted by the sounds of children playing in the snow and the shifting December light that makes everything seem mysterious.
I don’t know when the aches and pains of aging begin to trump small daily pleasures. It probably depends a lot on how you manage your health as you approach the golden years. But even with great care, your destiny is subject to many random influences. My mom took a walk every day and ate very nutritious food. She didn’t smoke or drink and never had diabetes. Then one day the doorbell rang and dementia arrived! The devastating news was very unexpected.
None of us get to choose the circumstances of our arrival or departure from life. You just need to pack your toolbox and be prepared to work with whatever fate brings. In the past three weeks I’ve gone from morbid speculation to buying confetti and birthday candles. I just keep looking for the silver lining. Here’s hoping you find silver linings among your holiday gifts!
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.