Humor Can Be a Dynamic Tool for Dementia Caregivers

We all know that caregiving is hard work, but does it always have to feel that way?

Do you often find yourself feeling disheartened and frustrated when approaching caregiver tasks and situations? Maybe it is time to change things up! Using humor can be an effective way to make things easier—or at least make it feel as though things are easier—in the moment. It can also improve your mood on a day-to-day basis.

Just as importantly, humor can make the day more fun for the person you are caring for and improve his/her mood as well.  “A strong commitment to having positive interactions is really what makes a good dementia caregiver” says Terri Abrams, RN, a clinical coordinator on the St. John’s Beyond Memory team. Terri often uses humor—when appropriate—to better communicate with and care for residents living with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

You do not have to be a trained comedian or take improvisation classes to use humor to help improve caregiving outcomes. You are performing for an audience of one—and you know them better than anybody else. Go ahead and make them laugh. 

Why use humor?

Humor—when used correctly—can be disarming.  “I use humor to convince elders that I am a friendly person and on their side,” says Abrams. “I’m just another person trying to get through a day and it could be nice (and safe) for us to do that together.”  Being silly or even telling a joke while you perform a task can make that task seem less like a chore for both you and your loved one.

We tend to laugh with and let our guard down for people we care about—typically those who also care for us the most.  Take a moment and think about a past interaction you have had with the person you are caring for and ask yourself if a different approach might have improved that interaction. Could a lighthearted joke or a silly song or a familiar movie line have eased tensions and made that moment more enjoyable? Could humor have led to a better overall outcome? Ultimately, bringing a less serious tone to caregiving can put us in the right frame of mind as caregivers. It can even help us avoid getting hurt feelings when something goes wrong. “I will say that having a sense of humor about your self is important,” says Mimi Devinney, dementia/quality of life specialist at St. John’s. “Sometimes people with dementia can say things to us that we can’t be too sensitive about.”

Keep it simple

Many of the funniest jokes we will hear during our lifetime will also be simple—quips, one-liners, or jokes that are crafted around simple concepts. Whatever you can do, say, sing, or pantomime to make your loved one laugh or bring a smile to his/her face will be worth your effort.  

For some people living with dementia, Abrams says that it can be those simple, almost effortless gestures which bring the most comfort.  “We have a lady who likes you to nod and wink at her,” Abrams describes, noting that more complex interactions tend to upset her.  “As a caregiver, laughing at your own expense—something as simple as ‘oh I always do that’—can set a lot of people at ease.”

Do not be afraid to bomb

There will be times when it will be difficult to find any sort of comedic inspiration while in the throes of complex caregiver situations. These times of frustration could be the perfect openings to infuse humor into your caregiving.  As long as you stay away from dark comedy and keep the tone positive, you really have nothing to lose. Throw a funny line or two out there about a topic that you think your loved one will find relatable. A well-placed joke could help you both find common ground, at least in that moment.

Bringing humor into the mix can simply be a matter of trial and error; sometimes you are going to bomb. Do not let that stop you from committing to your new craft! Abrams points to a particular person she cares for who often experienced crippling bouts of anxiety throughout the day. One day she was helping to transfer the woman from a chair to bed. Before she started, Abrams told the woman “when we help you stand I want you to stand so tall you hit your head on the ceiling.” This absurd request was all it took to get the job done, and brought laughter to an often stressful situation. “She just laughed and said ‘on the ceiling? I’m too short, I can’t do that,’” remembers Abrams. Now that the ceiling bit is a running joke, this woman’s caregivers will have her out of her chair and into bed before she is even done giggling. “Easier for us and much easier for her,” Abrams says.

Know Your Audience

You will learn when certain jokes or topics of conversation should not be entertained. “No person should ever be—or feel—laughed at or insulted,” says Abrams. Be sure to avoid making the person you are caring for the butt of the joke and also remember that certain jokes might work in one-on-one situations but could fall flat in group settings.  Again, your goal is to use humor to make someone you care about feel better about themselves and their situation.

Are you ready for another punchline? We said earlier that you are performing for an audience of one, but that is not exactly true. Laughter can also be an important device to help caregivers care for themselves. A good laugh can be cathartic for all of us! So do not be discouraged if there are days when the person you are caring for is not doubling over with laughter from your comedic efforts. As a caregiver you are also your own audience and perhaps cracking yourself up is precisely the remedy you will need to keep going.