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Living with Dementia: Embracing Humor

Is laughter the “best medicine” for those with dementia?

Elaine Abrams, MPH, RN, CHES's picture
Living with Dementia: Embracing Humor
Living with Dementia: Embracing Humor

My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about five years ago and while there have been many “unfunny” moments (like the day he decided to go for a walk to Foxboro Center at 4 o’clock in the morning in the middle of November). I have found that the use of laughter and humor not only helps me to keep my sanity, but it also seems to help him.

Interestingly, as his disease has progressed, he seems to laugh more easily at things that in past years tended to annoy him. When I did some research on the benefits of laughter and humor in dementia, I learned that at the onset of dementia, certain personality traits that had been well controlled in the past often become accentuated.  Some individuals may begin to experience negative emotions such as anger and fear, while others, such as my dad, become more cheerful. It is widely accepted that a person’s emotional state will affect the course of their disease. Negative emotions often result in a 'fight-or-flight' response where the person with dementia exhibits fear and agitation. In addition, adults with dementia often feel unsafe, alarmed, and insecure, which, in turn, reduces their ability to process information from their surroundings. With even less secure information, they become more alarmed, leading to negative emotions and behaviors.

Conversely, positive emotions are associated with joy, play, and humor. Laughter is usually associated with positive emotions, so it is most often observed with positive behaviors. When my dad is happy, telling funny stories and laughing out loud, I find that he is more cooperative with activities of daily living, is more likely to finish his meals, etc.

The benefit of laughter is well established—it has been called an inexpensive wonder drug and the  “universal medicine.” Some of the benefits attributed to laughter include an improved immune response and increased pain tolerance. Laughter therapy and humor therapy have unique implications as group programs and as self-management techniques.

Dementia patients are usually under considerable strain and their families are often placed under even more stress because of the burden of caregiving. A positive emotion, together with laughter, may enable adults with dementia to cope with their illness better, improve immune function, increase pain tolerance, and decrease the stress response. At Hebrew SeniorLife, our residents are encouraged to participate in daily activities with others. The positive emotions that are shared by both residents and staff help to maintain social contact, which in turn reduce the “fight or flight” response.

It is true that laughter and smiling decrease over time in most adults with dementia, but not all forms of laughter and smiling are equally reduced. In fact, laughter in response to the release of tension is often preserved until the later stages of the disease.

In the meantime, I will continue to cherish those moments of laughter and joy with my dad.

About Dementia Care at Hebrew SeniorLife
Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston offers testing for memory disorders such as Alzheimer's Disease for patients in the Greater Boston area. Our clinicians can help determine if a patient’s memory loss is part of the aging process, medications being taken, or a sign of dementia. For those living with a memory disorder in need of long-term care, Memory Care located within Hebrew Rehabilitation Center at our Roslindale and Dedham locations, and our Memory Care Assisted Living at NewBridge on the Charles take a holistic approach to managing care for residents with Alzheimer's and other dementias while preserving independence and functional ability. Therapeutic programs focus on residents' medical, physical, social, cultural, emotional, behavioral and spiritual needs in a compassionate, supportive and structured environment.  

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Program Manager, Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care at Hebrew Senior Life

Elaine Abrams, MPH, RN, CHES, joined HSL in December 2013 bringing with her more than 25 years of nursing, public health, and health education experience. Her areas of expertise include community health assessment, program development and management, and health communications.  A graduate of University of Connecticut Graduate Program in Public Health, Elaine has held several leadership roles including President-elect at the Connecticut Public Health Association, the state affiliate of the American Public Health Association, where she  also served for several years on the Board of Directors...

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