As I visited with a friend and her mother who had mid-stage Alzheimer's, her mother abruptly stood, held out her hand, and said to me, "You can go now." Since I'd been forewarned that this may happen and I'd been around people with dementia for years, I wasn't offended. My friend and I both managed not to laugh. I simply agreed with her mom and said that, indeed, it was time for me to be off, as there was much to do. I thanked her for the lovely visit and left.
My friend and I have since shared a number of chuckles over this incident. Are we wrong to find our amusement where we can get it? I don't think so. We aren't laughing at her mom who was – and is – a lovely person. We're laughing at a situation that, if we examine it too closely, would simply bring more tears. Alzheimer's disease not only affects one's memory. It affects judgment as well as social filters. People with Alzheimer's are often extremely blunt, saying what they are feeling at the moment.
We laugh so we won't cry
We caregivers must cope with difficult decisions. We're continually coping with the knowledge that our loved one has a devastating, and in the case of dementia, irreversible disease. The stress from providing care day in and day out can be enormous.
Though we may be emotionally shredded by the changes in our loved ones' physical and often mental health, we soldier on daily trying to help them maintain some quality in their lives. This can drain us of energy and devour our time to where we have little left to give to our friends, so those who don't understand the challenges caregivers face often drift away.
Other caregivers understand our stress and our attempts at humor. While a non-caregiver may think my friend and I were laughing at her mom, a caregiver instinctively knows why we are laughing and the love and pain behind our laughter.
During the years that several of my loved ones lived in a nearby nursing home, often I'd find myself walking out the door with others who had family members living in the facility. We'd frequently ask one another how we were doing and how our loved ones were feeling.
Occasionally, our brief chats were accompanied by sorrow and perhaps a good cry, but nearly always there was laughter, as well. The laughter was wry and tinged with pain, yet cathartic. It was aimed at an ugly disease or illness that was slowly destroying a loved one. The only alternate relief for us would seemingly be tears, and most of us had shed buckets of tears already. Empathetic laughter was what we had left.
Some people may find it strange that we didn't want sympathy. What we wanted and needed was empathy – that shared fellowship from people who know what we are feeling without our having to explain it. Empathy was often expressed by a hug or a smile, but just as often it was expressed by a story that was humorous only to those of us who'd been humbled by the unique demands of caregiving.
Humor with our care receiver can be good for us all
Sharing humor with our aging loved ones who are mentally sharp but physically challenged can be cathartic for both parties. There are also stages in dementia care when humor can still be a way of bonding with our loved one. The caveat here is that we must know the person we are kidding with well enough to understand what will encourage a smile or laugh without causing hurt feelings.
One amazing CNA who was my dad's primary caregiver had a fantastic sense of humor. Her laughing voice could be heard coming from resident's rooms half way down the hall. And believe me, the residents were laughing, too. If my dad was in any condition to laugh, Sandy could get him going. She knew just the right time to kid him in ways that I, as his daughter, would never dare. Sandy has a gift with elders and she's now become a nurse in a dementia unit. She'll have my gratitude forever for the lift that her sense of humor gave my dad.
The first sentence in the well-known book "The Road Less Traveled," written by the late M. Scott Peck, is this: Life is difficult. Indeed it is. If not for our human ability to often find humor in even difficult situations, life could be very dreary for many of us.
Studies have shown that if we laugh even when we don't feel happy, our body signals our brain to be happier and more peaceful. Our vital signs improve, as well. Laughter doesn't always signal a light heart, but it can make the unbearable more bearable. Just make sure the laughter is kind laughter and that you are laughing with people, not at them. If you keep that in mind, you should find some humor in most days and be healthier for it.
Author, columnist and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack wrote "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories" and is the moderator of the AgingCare.com community. Read her full biography