There is nothing humorous about Alzheimer’s disease, but humor can be an effective way to deal with it, both for the family caregiver and the senior adult who is living with the disease.

In a TedxExeter talk , British neuroscientist Sophie Scott describes laughter as a far more complex social skill than most people imagine. It’s often used to signal agreement and show affection, and humor demonstrates that we understand someone. It creates a bond, a sense of inclusion between people. “Take your laughter seriously,” she says. “It can sound like friendship. It can sound like love.”

Benefits of Laughter

The benefits of laughter can extend to the person living with Alzheimer’s and to a family caregiver. The physical and emotional effects of humor and laughter include:

  • the release of endorphins, which are the feel-good brain chemicals
  • a decrease in sadness, anxiety, and anger
  • the relief of distress and depression
  • a change of perspective that eases tension
  • a reduction in defensiveness

Studies show it can strengthen the immune system and trigger the nervous system’s relaxation response.

In addition, according to a study at the University of New South Wales in Australia that examined the effectiveness of professional humor therapists who work with nursing home staff, humor therapy significantly reduced agitation in dementia patients.

Humor for People with Alzheimer’s

One symptom of Alzheimer’s is a change in what someone finds funny. As cognition declines, satirical or absurdist comedy (such as Monty Python, which features rational characters reacting to irrational circumstances) loses its comic appeal to people with Alzheimer’s. Traditional jokes, which feature a setup followed by a punchline, become a challenge for the senior to connect the parts of the joke. Also, seniors with Alzheimer’s may be more sensitive to a joke, believing that the other person is laughing at them rather than with them.

Studies show, however, that some types of laughter remain. If the person feels physically comfortable or has successfully completed a task, he or she may laugh. Also, people with Alzheimer’s tend to find slapstick comedy funny.

Researchers break down humor categories for people with Alzheimer’s into two types: adaptive and maladaptive humor. Adaptive humor promotes positive social relationships and is a self-enhancing humor that is not used at the expense of others. It results in less depression and anxiety and causes greater optimism and self-esteem. Maladaptive humor, which is aggressive, ridicules others and is self-defeating, producing the opposite effects.

Look for the bright side when exploring humor with your senior loved ones. If a senior can no longer drive, for example, tell them they now have their own chauffeur. The objective is to redirect a negative thought into a positive thought. Talk about funny things that happened in your senior loved one’s past or in the family history. Sing an old familiar song with your senior that will bring a smile to his or her face, even if they can’t remember the words.

Some nursing homes are providing sessions for residents with Alzheimer’s that include clowning with mimes, music, humorous props, and sight gags like mimicking a conversation through tin cans or singing. The results are showing a significant drop in agitation among the residents.

The Humor Foundation Elder-Clowns organization uses red-nosed clowns, improvised humor, music, and dance to engage nursing home residents.

Above all, don’t be afraid to laugh with your senior loved one, even as they are living with Alzheimer’s. As the disease progresses, what remains is the present moment with you. Try to fill that moment with laughter.

If you are caring for a senior with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, visit our blog for more helpful tips.