Laughter and dementia. Just the thought of these two concepts, especially the devastating and unrelenting effects of the disease on seniors, family members and caregivers, seem opposite to anything approaching humor. Yet humor has an important role for people living with dementia.

How Does Humor Help?

An Australian study focused on the effects of humor on people living with dementia in residential care facilities. The results revealed that humor therapy is as effective as widely used antipsychotic drugs in helping people with dementia—and it avoids serious drug-related side effects.

After all, the benefits of laughter for all humans have been well established. They include:

  • Relief from stress, anxiety, and depression
  • The release of the body’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals
  • Increased protection from heart disease
  • Stronger immune system
  • Pain relief
  • Increased socialization with others

When and How to Find Humor?

The onset of dementia may change a person’s sense of humor. As the disease progresses, jokes with setup and punchlines can become more difficult or impossible for the person to follow. However, studies have shown that slapstick comedy may often still be funny for people with dementia. So, the Three Stooges might be a better source of comedy for them than a standup comedy routine.

Also, an individual living with dementia may find amusement in things that most would not find funny, like a caregiver cutting her finger, and sometimes will laugh for no reason that they or anyone else can identify.

You as a family member and caregiver will have to determine when and how to find a humorous moment. It is important to engage with the senior as much as possible without overwhelming or irritating them.

Here are some tips about talking with someone who is living with dementia:

  • Choose a time when they have more energy. Be aware if they are tired or simply don’t want to talk or interact.
  • Find a place with very few distractions
  • Sit close enough that you’re easy to hear but not invading personal space
  • Show you are relaxed through your body language
  • Ask the senior if there is something he or she wants to talk about
  • Speak slowly enough to let them process what you are saying
  • Give them time to form thoughts and respond
  • Be mindful of their mood as you listen
  • Don’t shut out sad feelings or thoughts
  • Ask simple questions one at a time
  • Don’t ever give them the feeling that you are laughing at them

As they open up, they may recount funny stories about their past life. Reviewing an album of funny family photos could be a good way to start a conversation. Play some of their favorite records or videos of their favorite comedians from years ago.

Sing a song, perform a dance, or put on a silly hat. If these things aren’t working, don’t take it personally — just move on to something else.

There are professional clowns/comics who have been trained to work specifically with dementia patients, often in senior living communities. They use improvisation, humor and empathy, as well as expressive tools, to engage nursing home residents.

Examples of interactions include: song and music, such as singing with residents their favorite songs accompanied by a ukulele. Creating improvised songs or witty, playful scenarios. For example, residents teasing the elder-clowns by playfully pretending to kick them as they bend over. The elder-clowns respond with exaggerated pratfalls, sound explosions and facial animations. The results with dementia patients have been proving positive.

A distinctive feature of elder-clowning is a reliance upon biographical details to tailor interactions to the uniqueness of each individual resident. If one resident were a baker, the discussion and improvisation might be around cakes and donuts. This is something a caregiver might also bring into a discussion with a senior, or just ask what the senior loved to do as a child. Consider anything positive that might produce a smile.

Sometimes, as a caregiver or family member, you may be worried that nothing you do or say seems to have any effect. But research shows that a positive mood shift, whether it’s from a loved one’s visit or a good laugh, can last long after the person living with dementia has forgotten the reason why.

For more information on humor and dementia, visit Bethesda’s Health & Wellness blog.