Perhaps you read the story, as I did recently, of a comedian breathing new life into a fading Alzheimer’s patient. The article, in the June 2018 issue of the AARP Bulletin is by a daughter, who tells of her mother changing for the worst a year after moving into a senior residence far from her home. “I’d show up and find her sitting away from the group, her head dropped to the right or left, surrendered to the forces of gravity and a desire to sleep. When people talked to her, she looked blankly into the distance. She had lost her interest in food, one of her great passions.”
The daughter, a former professional comedian, decided she wanted to find someone who could make her mother laugh. She posted an ad on the internet and found Sue, a comic who wanted to work with seniors.
When her mother, Muriel, first met Sue, she just stared ahead. Sue moved to make eye contact. Muriel looked away. “You don’t want to talk do you, Muriel? I get that,” Sue said. “Some days I don’t want to talk, either. When someone gets in my face I think, schmuck, do I look like I want to talk?” Muriel turned to Sue and smiled. Then Sue repeated herself, “Schmuck, do I look like I want to talk.” Muriel smiled even bigger, then laughed and blurted out, “Schmuck!” like a kid getting away with something. She turned to see Sue laugh and then repeated the phrase even louder. “Schmuck!” laughing so hard she almost couldn’t get the word out.
After getting such a response from Muriel, Sue was hired to work with her ten hours a week. Very soon, Muriel was eating again and was more engaged with people, even when Sue wasn’t there. She started reaching out to aides, sometimes waving and also crooning melodies to familiar songs. According to Muriel’s daughter, Dani Klein Modisett, “ It was nothing short of remarkable.”
In a short column accompanying the story, Andrea Cwieka wrote on “The Healing Power of Humor,” saying, “Humor therapy can be as effective as some drugs in managing agitation in dementia patients. That’s according to research at the University of New South Wales in Australia. The study examined the effectiveness of professional humor therapists, called Elder Clowns, who work with nursing home staff trained in the practice, called Laughter Bosses. They performed weekly humor sessions with individuals and groups of patients, using methods based on improv comedy—much like Clown Doctors, who work in children’s hospitals to lift the mood of the patients and increase interaction.”
Another published study conducted at the Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine in Suita, Japan, found that the positive effects of humor can last for weeks after a therapy session. “As patients lose cognitive function, they lose the ability to laugh and smile, especially as a tool of social communication. But some types of laughter are preserved.” As the Japanese study explains, some dementia patients will smile or laugh after sleeping well or having a good meal. They also respond with laughter or smiles when they reach a goal or their accomplishment is recognized.
The latter statement brought back a memory about my late husband Tom’s smile. After not talking for two weeks and eating very little, he smiled when our minister told the hospice nurses about Tom sharing jokes when he arrived at church each Sunday. Tom died a week later, but I know the smile was a response to recognition for his humor.
Evidently humor is a hot topic right now. Chautauqua Institution in western New York, where I spend some memorable hours each summer, just had a theme week on humor bringing in comedians and humor experts. I particularly enjoyed the Bremen Town musicians, operatic students who put on a funny show for children playing a donkey, a rooster and other animals.
Also, Time magazine has a special edition out now on “The Science of Laughter.” In the article, “Curing What Ails You” by Alice Park, she suggests, laughter may not be the best medicine, but a growing body of work suggests it could be as important as diet and exercise. “Researchers have documented that laughing changes the body’s very chemistry, raising hormones responsible for happy feelings and lowering stress related- hormones.”
The article continues, “Lower levels of stress hormones can have wide-ranging benefits for the body. Stress is linked to higher blood pressure and a greater risk of heart disease, as well as increased levels of inflammation. Inflammation, or an overstimulation of the body’s immune response is associated with everything from arthritis to degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s.”
A companion article, “13 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Laughing” by Sally Wadyka, states, “The same pleasure sensors in the brain that are activated when we eat chocolate become active when we find something funny,” according to Scott Weems, a research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “It’s a natural high,” In fact, a 2003 brain-scan study published in the journal Neuron found that the dopamine reward centers and pathways in the brains of subjects lit up when they were treated to a funny cartoon but not when they were shown an unfunny version.
The primary Time magazine article, “Curing What Ails You” concludes, “Even if there isn’t a hard- scientific proof for a prescription for laughter as medicine, researchers do agree that laughter is a rich experience that they are only just beginning to mine on the biological level. And in the meantime, it can make you feel better, so why not laugh a little more?”
So, caregivers and former caregivers, dementia care receivers, and all others, why not look for something funny, a movie, a story, a joke. My husband always had a few jokes ready for anyone who would listen or a riddle for kids. Here’s one he got a kick out of asking. “What has 16 legs, wears a bra and whistles in the woods?” He’d pause and ask, “Do you give up?” Most would and he’d say “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and laugh heartily along with his audience.
I miss that sense of humor now, even though I did at times roll my eyes at his recitations and pretend I didn’t know him. So, I’m going to pick up the big book of Dr. Seuss stories I found yesterday in a Colorado vacation rental and read again “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat in the Hat.” What’s your favorite Dr. Seuss?
Shirley Woolaway has an M. Ed. in counseling and worked in journalism, in business, and as a therapist in Pennsylvania. She has 25 years personal experience with dementia as a caregiver for family members with Alzheimer’s disease, and nine years as the coordinator of an Alzheimer’s Association memory loss/caregiver support group, earlier in Pennsylvania and now on Marco Island. She has been leading a dementia support group for eleven years, three in PA and eight on Marco Island. We believe that Shirley’s insights will prove helpful to many of our readers.
For help on all aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias call the national Alzheimer’s Association confidential, 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900 or the local Bonita Springs office at 239-405-7008 for care consults and support group information. Also helpful with local educational programs, workshops, and support groups, is the Naples Alzheimer’s Support Network, 239-262-8388.