The benefits of laughter have been recognised for a long time. We know it is a good stress reliever. Laughter helps to break down barriers, lighten the mood and make tense situations seem more manageable. Studies have shown that laughing triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel good chemicals, it also improves blood flow and oxygen to the brain, can make our hearts healthier and improves our immune system. There’s no doubt we all feel better after a good belly laugh, but what about the benefits for those living with dementia?
Australian researchers did a 3-year study, aptly named SMILE to see if humour could improve the quality of life for 400 people living with dementia. Results showed that laughter therapy can have the same effect as taking antipsychotic medication, with a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms. The frustration, confusion, depression and anxiety that someone with dementia experiences can often lead to an increase in troubling habits such as, wandering, agitation or emotional outbursts. Laughter can help someone with dementia redirect these negative emotions or at least be a pleasant distraction for a while. Anything that can reduce these anxiety related symptoms has got to be worth a try.
It is important that humour doesn’t cross any lines into behaviour that could be seen as demeaning or belittling. A person with dementia can be offended by certain types of humour as they may not understand the context of it, or they could be over-sensitive to certain subjects. Watch for their reactions and adjust your behaviour accordingly. We don’t all have the same sense of humour, mine is terrible toilet humour, my husband really laughs at slapstick comedy. Any information from family and friends about what their loved ones found funny, personality quirks and favourite comedy shows is invaluable. Humour and comedy from their young adulthood will often still hold true for them, so it’s worth digging out some of the old favourites like Tommy Cooper, Charlie Drake, Norman Wisdom or The Goons and judge the reaction for yourself. Laughing is contagious and breaks down barriers, so don’t be frightened to try something silly to raise a laugh.
When I was a newly qualified, I remember Lily, a lovely lady with dementia, being admitted to the ward. She was shouting, agitated and unsettled and we were struggling to get her to have a bath (she really needed one). It was a busy day and tensions were running high. As a last desperate attempt, I played her Neil Diamond CD. It didn’t help, she threw her toiletry bag at me! Feeling exasperated and frustrated I ended up doing a silly dance, much to the amusement of my student. Lily looked at me quizzically, then broke into a big grin and started to dance herself. She didn’t get her bath that day, but she was less agitated and so were we.
As a caregiver, you get more than your fair share of frustrations and difficult days. Laughter is a natural and effective way to release tension, diffuse difficult situations and lighten the mood. It allows you to enjoy a moment that could otherwise leave you wound up or in tears.