November 22nd, 2011 at 2:12 pm
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Alzheimer’s and humor therapy: laughter as medicine

by Carol Bursack

Although Norman Cousins made a case for laughter being the best medicine, there hasn’t been a lot of research published on how humor can affect a person with Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study brings us the welcome news that using humor to interact with our elders may improve their health. The study–conducted in Australia–found that “humor therapy” appears as effective as psychiatric drugs for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The study revealed that nursing home residents who participated in two-hour “clowning-sessions,” which included mime, music and more, displayed a reduction in verbally and physically aggressive behavior. Even more surprising is this drop in agitated behavior lasted for over three months after humor therapy ended.

“Clown Doctor” program a type of person-centered care

Jean-Paul Bell, creative director at the Arts Health Institute in Avalon Beach, New South Wales, and co-founder of the Australia-wide, hospital-based “Clown Doctor” program, conducted the study with colleagues at the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre, the University of New South Wales and Prince of Wales Hospital. The results were recently presented at the National Dementia Research Forum, in Sydney.

Bell’s Clown Doctor program would be considered a type of person centered care, because it focuses on interacting with individuals, recognizes their abilities, rather than just treating their disabilities. Person-centered care for elders who are in facilities is certainly not new with this group. The Pioneer Network has been pushing the movement toward a culture change in nursing homes for many years, with person-centered care at the heart of the movement.

Bell took this person-centered approach and used the Clown Doctor program to bring human interaction to people with Alzheimer’s in a controlled environment. The results were impressive enough that I believe families with aging loved ones should pay attention.

Alzheimer’s and humor: laughing is great medicine

Your loved one with Alzheimer’s or other dementia may or may not live in a facility. Either way, by focusing on the positive things that someone with dementia can enjoy is likely to help make holiday visits more pleasant, or any visits for that matter.

Since even an elder without dementia generally likes to reminisce, think family history. This is even more important when an elder has dementia, since short-term memory is generally the first to go. People can often remember things that happened decades back, even in mid-stage Alzheimer’s. Two of the best visual aids include the following:

  1. Photos. Old photo albums are a wonderful visual aid.
  2. Movies. If you are lucky enough to have old family movies, dig those out.

While going through these with your elder and other family members, be generous with your laughter. Find your high school graduation picture and make fun of the funny hair style. Look for pictures of you and your siblings when you were small. If you can find any photos depicting a family member doing silly things–and most family albums have a few Halloween photos or birthday pictures that are amusing–point them out. Let your siblings and others around you know that you are fishing for laughs and humor as a way to help your elder.

Negativity is contagious. So is an upbeat spirit. Try, at least for the holidays, to keep an upbeat atmosphere for your elder. Sometimes that takes an attitude change on the part of adult children who are saddened, and even depressed, by the condition of their parent or parents. But think of this as medicine. You’d love to find a pill that would make your elders’ lives a little better, right?

Well, laughter is cheaper and has no negative side effects. Give it a try.

Posted in Alzheimer’s, Dementia | 3 Comments »
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3 Comments to “Alzheimer’s and humor therapy: laughter as medicine”

  1. ECL editors

    Dear Tom: Thanks so much for your story. It’s great that you could share this idea for others whose loved ones suffer from Alzheimer’s. We really appreciate your input.

  2. Tom Leddy

    My mother is 87 and has had Alzheimer’s for about three years. She is probably “mid-stage.” Although I live nearby I cannot visit her every day. To make up for that, I have made a habit of calling her every morning and reading the comics from the newspaper to her. She laughs a lot and seems to get most of the humor. (Peanuts, Zits, and Pickles are favorites.) Otherwise she is not a great conversationalist since she can’t talk much about the recent past or the future and has no real projects. So this is a great way to have a conversation with her. We often talk about the cartoon after the laugh. This has been a great experience for me and I am eager to let others know about it. Also, my mom seems not to have declined over the past year since I started doing this. Having a good laugh every morning is good for me too. I am actually amazed at how many jokes she can still “get” given her condition: I think we tend to underestimate the cognitive abilities of Alzheimer’s patients. Of course this is just an anecdote, but I hope that scientists will think more about it.

  3. Marion

    The holidays are here and it brings fun and laughter to us elders living in the facilities. Sharing the happy moments with our family and friends makes a big difference. I guess, your are right, nobody gets overdose with laughter. Happy Holidays to all.

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