Humor: The Caregiver’s Best Medicine
Charles Dickens said, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” The problem is there’s nothing even remotely funny about providing care for a loved one with dementia. Most caregivers would agree that all things humorous faded out with their loved one’s memories…or did they? My own experience might suggest otherwise.
It was a cold January morning in 1997—the last morning my grandparents would wake up in their beloved Ozark home. We were leaving for Memphis that day because we knew they could no longer live there on their own. Chris and I were still in bed when we heard Grandma and Grandpa moving around their room across the hall. There were a number of generic “morning” sounds, and then out of nowhere Grandma just said it: “These your teeth?”
That lone phrase provoked a fit of laughter the magnitude of which had rarely been seen in that house. Chris and I buried our heads in the pillows as we attempted to preserve the early morning quiet of that house, but the hilarity of the moment was so intense we just couldn’t stop. We’d start to regain control, then spontaneously it would burst upon us again; the more we tried to stifle it the more uncontrollably we guffawed.
The question is: why was this so funny? I’d known for years my grandparents both had false teeth, and while it may have been mildly amusing that there was a set of teeth in a glass which weren’t immediately identifiable, surely it didn’t warrant that degree of comic acclaim. So, what was going on here?
To better understand our rollicking outburst, let’s consider what had come before all that. We had arrived at my grandparents’ house two days earlier following an urgent call from their neighbor. He said Grandma and Grandpa had been brought home by a sheriff after they’d been gone from home for four days; I learned they’d been found more than two hours from their house on the roadside with a flat tire in a partially wrecked car, and the temperature was below freezing. I discovered Grandma had a lens missing from her glasses and there was not a crumb of food in their house. To top it all off, the Alzheimer’s she was ultimately diagnosed with was so deeply rooted that she didn’t even know she was in her own home.
Day two of our stay was marked by a trip to my grandparents’ attorney who handed me their original Power of Attorney documents, thus dropping the bomb that I was going to have to care for them for the rest of their lives. The fear of what could have happened to them—coupled with the anxiety of what was about to happen to all of us—left me feeling both shocked and hopeless. We’d taken in so much negative information that by the time day three rolled around, Grandma’s silly phrase “these your teeth” just hit the spot, releasing an avalanche of pent-up emotion and stress.
It turns out laughter is a serious business. Studies are showing that while constant stress is very bad for our health, humor is a device the brain uses to help us manage it. Laughter, in terms of stress management, is one of the most affective remedies available. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing not only helps your mind, but it actually causes good physical changes in your body.
Laughter Enhances Your Intake of Oxygen-rich Air
Air with a high oxygen content stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, plus it causes an increase in endorphins (substances produced by the brain that trigger a positive feeling in the body; they act as analgesics—meaning they diminish the perception of pain).
Laughter Activates & Relieves Your Stress Response
A good, hard belly-laugh ignites then cools your stress response; it can also increase—then decrease—your heart rate and blood pressure. This results in your body experiencing a pleasant feeling of being relaxed.
Laughter Can Soothe Tension
Some of the physical symptoms of stress can be reduced by stimulating circulation and helping muscles relax; a hearty laugh can do both.
I encourage you to let yourself laugh, even when the overall situation is anything but amusing. A half-hour in front of a favorite sit-com can actually give you the feeling you’ve had a break from the challenges of caregiving. Maybe what Benjamin Franklin said was true: “Trouble knocked at the door, but, hearing laughter, hurried away.”