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.
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!