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Make 'Em Laugh

What’s so funny about caregiving? Caring for a loved one with dementia is not particularly amusing, but some family caregivers are finding that a dose of humor is just what everyone involved needs.

Conventional thinking has been to take an illness—such as dementia--seriously and therefore behave accordingly. Yet, stepping out of those roles of caregiver and patient or even mother and daughter for even a short time can be a healthy release.

Patch Adams, the clowning doctor who was immortalized on the big screen, is a proponent of humor but emphasizes that it’s about the connections made by breaking down barriers between people. "I never said laughter is the best medicine," Patch Adams said in the book, “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny” by Dr. Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Instead, Adams believes the “key to a healthy life is connected, loving relationships with anyone and everyone.”

So while laughter and being silly won’t “reverse a degenerative disease, stop a heart attack, or cure cancer…it helps people cope with their problems, it distracts from dispiriting thoughts, it creates an escape from what ails you, whether that be the loss of a loved one, a diagnosis of Parkinson's...or just a crummy day,” McGraw and Warner observe in “The Humor Code.”

“Yes, and…”

Karen Stobbe and her family discovered the power of humor by using their professional improvisational theater skills on her mother, who is now 89 and in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The rule in improv is: “Yes, and…,” explained Ms. Stobbe. “If you hit the stage and you say “No” you are stopping the scene, but if you say, “Yes, and…” you are accepting and building the scene. It’s the same with someone with dementia. If your Mom says she wants to go see her Mom who died years ago, you don’t say, “No, your Mom died.” Instead, you can say, “Yes, and tell me about her.”

After an epiphany that improv was the key to better communication with her Mom (listen to Ms. Stobbe on This American Life), Ms. Stobbe applied for and received grants to create workshops to teach her method to other family caregivers. She now offers her training on her website, In the Moment, and does professionally speaking about her approach.

“You have to jump into their world and learn to go with the flow,” Ms. Stobbe advised family caregivers who assist a loved one with dementia. “Otherwise you will just make them frustrated and angry and be arguing with them.”

A Guy Walks Into a Nursing Home….

John Hadfield is also a family caregiver for his mother who has dementia. Mr. Hadfield is bringing his professional talents as an award-winning singer and songwriter as well as former circus performer not just to his beloved Mom, but to people her age who live in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

“This show came about because I am the primary caretaker for my Mom,” he said. “She still lives independently and even bowls twice a week, but she has no short-term memory. She’s a totally different person than she once was, but still funny and happy and I love to make her laugh.” [Watch Mr. Hadfield performing in this video.]

Mr. Hadfield has created a show with jokes about lost keys, dentures, getting dressed incorrectly, along with music, a trained dog, and more, which his audiences seem to thoroughly enjoy.

“My favorite feedback, aside from the usual laughter and applause, is when I get heckled,” Mr. Hadfield said. “Eight year olds only heckle you when they really like you, and it lets me know that not only are they fully engaged in the performance, but that they are feeling young and funny and smart again.”

One-third of the 200 shows Mr. Hadfield performs annually are for seniors, but in a way, he is always performing for his Mom—or at least with her in mind. He noted that when his Mom is laughing, “it gets her through the rough times and helps her focus on the positive and not dwell on things she can’t control.”

Going with the flow, laughing, letting go of control. All of these choices can make caregiving and being cared for a little bit easier and more joyful.

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