Unexpected humorous moments are common in caregiving. In fact, caregiving can be enlivened by the unprompted remarks and unintentional antics of an elderly parent.
But should we feel guilty about laughing? Is our laughter a sign of disrespect or a lack of love for our family member? Do we want to laugh but don't because we're afraid of seeming insensitive?
Even in the most dire of circumstances, elder care professionals insist that it is OK, even helpful, to laugh. "Not only is laughing OK, it's absolutely necessary," says Cindy Laverty, a former caregiver who founded The Care Company and The Cindy Laverty talk show, a first-of-its-kind forum that discusses the topic of care.
When Laverty was unexpectedly thrust into caregiving, she had to learn how to navigate the complex and overwhelming world of caregiving. But through that journey, she discovered how she could not only survive, but thrive amid the challenges. Finding and holding onto humorous stories of your own can help you keep an upbeat perspective in spite of the challenges of being a caregiver, she explains.
"We go into caregiving with this big dark cloud hanging over us – it's stressful, it's so awful. When we go in with that attitude, that's what it becomes. It is stressful and awful, but when we're having a horrible day, a good day is sure to follow. And even in the midst of those horrible days, there are funny moments that happen. Recognize and appreciate those moments," she says.
Take Alzheimer's disease for example. It robs elders of their memories and ability to care for themselves, and that is tragic. Certainly Alzheimer's is an awful disease, and there is nothing funny about it. But there are funny moments that happen. When you laugh, you're not laughing at them; you're laughing because the moment is funny. "If we don't follow the whole spectrum of emotion, we get lost in the oppression of a chronic disease," Laverty explains.
Your laughter can also send a positive, non-alarming message to the elder. If you don't get upset during a challenging, it's likely that they won't either. Laughing can turn into a tension relieving exercise for the caregiver and person with Alzheimer's who, while cognitively impaired, is still greatly influenced by ambient tensions.
Moments of Humor
When Laverty was caring for her father-in-law, who had open heart surgery and a stroke, one of his favorite activities was golfing. Of course, he could no longer hit the greens, so the Laverty's set up a chipping station for him in the backyard. "He couldn't balance well, due to the stroke. When he swung the golf club, I had to squat down and hold his belt, so he wouldn't fall. One time, he did fall…on top of me. We ended up in a very compromising position. His response was, ‘We have to stop meeting like this.' We both just cracked up. It lightened up the moment, and turned an awkward situation into a hilarious one."
Laverty's mother-in-law also provided some comic relief during her bout with Alzheimer's disease. She was missing her four front teeth – each one lost when she bit various home health workers. "If someone bent over, or got too close, she would bite them," Laverty says. "Needless to say, that is a dangerous and unwanted behavior. But no matter what we tried, we couldn't get her to stop. Getting a caregiver to stick around wasn't easy. But you can't deny it…the situation was funny."
Laverty also found ways to lighten up stressful moments. Like bath time. Her mother-in-law refused to bathe, because the Alzheimer's made her afraid of the water. One evening, Laverty ran a warm bath, put Mr. Bubble in it, lit some candles, played a Dean Martin CD and poured a glass of non-alcoholic champagne (her mother-in-law's favorite drink back in the day) "She got right in the bathtub. But then we couldn't get her out," Laverty laughs.
Simple Joys Make Life Worth Living
Laverty reminds us that "caregiving is our final walk with our loved one. What do you want that journey to look like? Do you want it be miserable and laden with despair? Or do you want it to be a special time in which special memories are made? At the end of the day, as mad as I got at my in-laws when I was caregiving, I'd give anything if I could just hold their hand one more time."
Humor in the Media
The media has picked up on the fact that caregiving can be funny. For example, Fox Television's hit TV sitcom Raising Hope stars Cloris Leachman as Maw Maw, the great-grandmother, once the rock of the family who now vacillates between moments of lucidity and dementia. In her mind, the house is infested with mongooses, she's cheating on her dead husband and it just might be World War II.
It's not just made-for-TV moments that have grabbed the media spotlight. In a real-life example, Justin Halpern moved in with his 73-year-old father after hitting hard financial times. He soon discovered that with old age, his father had lost all inhibitions, and said whatever was on his mind. Halpern, who describes his dad as "like Socrates, but angrier and with worse hair" began writing down his father's rants and posting them to a Twitter account. Now, more than a million people follow Halpern's philosophical musings on Twitter. As a result, Halpern was offered a book deal. In less than three months, the aptly named Sh*t My Dad Says made it to the New York Times Bestseller List.
Humor is a Necessity
Laverty urges all caregivers to give up the role of the martyr. "If you listen to the news then you know that caregivers are supposed to feel overwhelmed and exhausted and without hope," she says. "When that mentality takes over, it's a recipe for disaster. Don't fall into victimization! I urge you to avoid adopting this mentality. It's a horrible place to be and the longer you stay there, the more difficult it becomes to get out!"
Caregiving is hard – we're not dismissing the gravity and hardship of the situation. But, during the tough times, it can be too easy to forget the importance of humor. Etch the funny memories in your spirit, and hold them in your heart. When you're loved one is gone, you'll be glad you did.
Read real-life upbeat, funny stories and words of inspiration here at AgingCare.com's Breath of Fresh Air – a lighter side of caregiving.