Family matters | Simple Rx for beleaguered family caregiver: Laughter

My 95-year-old father has dementia and is getting worse. He lives with me, keeps asking the same questions over and over, and needs constant attention with his personal care. I’m trying hard to be patient with him, but I need some strategies to help me get through the day.  — P.K., Berkeley

Dear P.K.: I appreciate how challenging caregiving can be, especially when caring for someone with cognitive impairment. Aging parents who have committed, involved children like you are truly fortunate. Taking care of our loved ones is simply what we do, but it’s undoubtedly stressful to juggle life, caregiving and the grief of seeing your parent decline.

In my work with caregivers, I’ve found that one strategy for coping with all these levels of stress is to bring humor and laughter into the relationship. You’ve probably heard the old saying “laughter is the best medicine,” and research has actually backed that up!

In 1979, UCLA professor of medical humanities Norman Cousins brought attention to the healing power of humor in his best-selling book “Anatomy of an Illness.” Other research also has confirmed that humor and laughter are good for your health. Laughter decreases cortisol levels that rise during stressful times, lowers blood pressure and improves mood.

So how can you incorporate humor into your current situation? People who are losing their memory often repeat themselves, asking the same questions, as you are experiencing with your dad. Try to redirect your dad’s focus by pointing out something in the environment that will put a smile on his face. Or be ready with a joke that can make him laugh and possibly break the cycle of repeated questions.

The laughter will connect the two of you and diffuse the initial point of tension, helping to create an interaction filled with levity.

Have a supply of funny movies or sitcoms to watch with your dad, or read a comic book with him. Try to take him places that might help him remember good times, or places that made him laugh in the past.

Another activity that might be good for both of you is “laughter yoga,” where yogic breathing is integrated with laughter as a form of exercise. Apparently, researchers have found that the body does not distinguish between fake and genuine laughter, so even laughing on purpose brings health benefits. Laughter yoga is practiced around the world. Locally, workshops are held at UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and at yoga and fitness centers.

It’s also important to take time to care for yourself and address your own needs. Try to take a break each day to find some fun and laughter. Finding humorous people to share this journey with can be immensely helpful.

Talk to friends or go to a caregiver support group where people will listen to stories about your dad. This may help put things in perspective so you can look back at some of these situations with humor. Start a story with “Can you believe my dad did this?” and you may end up laughing at the incident or at your reaction to it.

Always remember that even though caring for an older person can be overwhelming and exhausting, it can also be rewarding, filled with love and moments of joy. Intentionally focusing on humor and smiles can eliminate frustration on both sides and strengthen the relationship between parent and child. 

Rita Clancy LCSW, is the director of Adult Services at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the East Bay. Her columns appear regularly in J’s Seniors sections. Have questions about your aging parents? Email [email protected] or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 257.


Rita Clancy
Rita Clancy

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay. Have questions about your aging parents? Email [email protected].