People’s personalities and preferences may change naturally with age, but there’s one trait in particular that you might want to keep a close eye on: sense of humor. Many caregivers report that their senior loved ones laugh at inappropriate times, such as when someone is injured or tragedy strikes. Seniors may even begin to tell jokes or stories that are typically considered dark and twisted. According to researchers from The University College London, these changes in humor might be an early symptom of dementia.

Dark humor and dementia

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that 40% of participants with Alzheimer’s disease — and 100% of patients with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) — experienced changes in their sense of humor. Alterations included a darker tone and laughter at “frankly inappropriate” times. In one extreme case, a patient reportedly laughed at his wife after she severely scalded herself.

One of the reasons that dementia can affect a person’s sense of humor is that the disease impairs social functioning. This makes it hard for seniors to decode emotional signals. Decreased empathy and inappropriate reactions are also commonly associated with certain forms of dementia, such as FTD or semantic dementia. These forms of the disease often cause significant personality changes and can lead to seniors rapidly losing their inhibitions.

It’s common for people of all ages to use humor to cope with stress and anxiety, and dementia patients are no different. However, seniors with dementia may struggle to respond to social cues due to their disease. This may cause them to tell shocking or inappropriate jokes. While these changes in humor are not a clinical indicator of such conditions, more research is needed to understand the relationship between dementia and changes in personality.

Humor-related symptoms of dementia

If you notice any significant changes in your loved one’s personality and behavior, address them with a medical professional right away. Researchers at The University College London identified a number of humor-related changes to look out for, including:

  • An inability to understand satire
  • A childlike sense of humor or enjoyment of slapstick comedy
  • Laughing at things that are not particularly funny, such as a dog barking
  • Laughing inappropriately at events on the news
  • Laughing when someone experiences misfortune
  • Telling dirty or crude jokes in public
  • Taking jokes literally
  • Making inappropriate comments about strangers in public

How dementia caregivers can respond to inappropriate jokes

Our preferences and personalities evolve as we age. For those with dementia, these changes can seem even more pronounced. Your once clever and witty mother may now say things in public that make you feel embarrassed to be seen with her. Sometimes you may even find yourself quietly apologizing to strangers for comments your father makes on outings.

A loved one’s unusual humor may appear irrational, off-putting, or even hurtful. In some cases, existing negative personality traits may be to blame. These can become more apparent as dementia progresses and a loved one loses their social filters. In other cases, a well-meaning dementia patient may be doing their best to cope and stay engaged with those around them. Losing one’s faculties is often scary, isolating, and disorienting.

When your mom or dad behaves inappropriately, try using these strategies:

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  • Don’t get angry. Getting angry will only make your loved one upset, or reinforce that this is a way that they can get a reaction out of you. Try to handle the situation with as much grace as possible. Many strangers and family members will be sympathetic to you if you apologize and explain the situation, so try your best not to worry about what others think.
  • Don’t argue or scold. Your loved one may not realize that what they said or laughed at was inappropriate. You may confuse or upset them if you try to convince them otherwise. Try validating what they said as best as possible to help them feel at ease.
  • Redirect. Change the subject to something they enjoy, or find another activity for you both to participate in. This can help remove the focus from the current topic if your loved one reacts inappropriately.

As dementia progresses, it may be difficult to cope with behaviors associated with the condition. You may find helpful advice and support from caregivers like you on the AgingCare Caregiver Forum.

Altered Sense of Humor in Dementia (

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