I once visited a caregiver friend and her mother, who had moderate Alzheimer’s disease. At one point during the visit, the mother abruptly stood up, held out her hand and said to me, “You can go now.” I’d been warned that this might happen and I’d had years of experience with dementia patients, so I wasn’t the least bit offended. You see, Alzheimer’s disease has devastating effects on one’s memory, but it also affects judgment and social filters. My friend and I both managed not to laugh at my brusque dismissal; I simply thanked them for the lovely visit and said that it was indeed time for me to be off.

My friend and I have since shared many chuckles over this incident. Are we wrong to find amusement where we can get it? I don’t think so. We aren’t laughing at her mom who was—and remains—a lovely person. The truth is, dementia and aging aren’t laughing matters. But if we caregivers always examine our loved ones’ predicaments through a serious lens, the sadness of it all would be utterly consuming.

While some may consider it uncouth to find humor in elder care, laughter is often what helps many of us—caregivers and seniors alike—get through our most physically and emotionally difficult days. The gravity of our loved one’s situation is not lost on us, but we owe it to ourselves to find some sort of silver lining in the hard work that we do.

We Laugh so We Don’t Cry

Caregivers must handle difficult care decisions and an inordinate amount of stress every day. We’re constantly trying to cope with the knowledge that our loved ones are losing their independence, getting older and often living with serious medical conditions. Although we may be emotionally shredded by the changes in our loved ones’ physical and mental health, we soldier on trying to help them maintain their quality of life. This role leaves us caregivers feeling drained, isolated and often misunderstood.

However, nobody understands our burden and attempts at humor better than our fellow caregivers. A non-caregiver might misinterpret my friend and me, thinking we were laughing at her mom’s dementia-related behavior. But someone who has been in the trenches and interacted with a dementia patient before would instinctively recognize both the love and pain behind our laughter.

During the years that several of my loved ones lived in a nearby nursing home, I often found myself walking out the front door with other visiting family members and friends. We’d frequently ask one another how we were doing and how our loved ones were feeling.

Occasionally, our brief chats were sorrowful and perhaps accompanied by a few tears, but our interactions were frequently punctuated by laughs as well. The laughter was wry and tinged with pain but cathartic, nonetheless. It was aimed at an ugly disease or illness that was slowly destroying someone dear to us. The only alternative emotional outlet was crying, but most of us had shed buckets of tears already. Laughing together, even just briefly while walking to the parking lot, provided a valuable connection and pick-me-up that we all desperately needed after a nursing home visit.

Some people may find it strange that we weren’t seeking sympathy from one another. What we wanted and needed was understanding—that shared fellowship with people who know the complexities of what we are feeling without needing any explanation. 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.

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Humor Is Beneficial for Seniors and Caregivers

Sharing humor with our aging loved ones who are still mentally sharp can be uplifting as well. There are even stages in dementia care when you can still bond with your loved one through laughter. 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 certified nursing assistant (CNA) at the nursing home where my dad lived had a fantastic sense of humor. Her laughing voice could be heard coming from residents’ 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 have dared to. Sandy has a true gift with elders and she’s now working as a nurse in a memory care unit for dementia patients. I’ll always be grateful to her for the lift in spirits that her playfulness and jesting gave my dad.

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

Author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck began his renowned book, The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, with a simple truth: “Life is difficult.” Indeed, it is. If it weren’t for our human ability to find humor in even the most difficult situations, life would be very dreary for many of us.

Studies have shown that if we laugh even when we don’t feel happy, it still triggers the release of endorphins. This improves our mood and decreases harmful stress hormones. Laughter doesn’t always indicate lightheartedness, but it can make the challenging times more bearable. Just ensure your laughter is kind and inclusive. If you keep that in mind, there is no shame in finding some humor in being a caregiver and sharing it with your loved ones. You will probably feel lighter and healthier for it.