Caring Currents

Is It Ever Okay to Laugh About Alzheimer's?

Selma: "Hahaha, that's hilarious!"
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Let me say straightaway that Alzheimer's isn't funny. And yet, there sure are plenty of moments that make you want to laugh. Or me, anyway.

No doubt dementia is a horrible affliction, in the progressive way it erodes the memories and connectedness of someone you love. But it's exactly that long slow progressiveness, the years of everyday living situations, that present so many opportunities for absurdity and comedy "”as well as so much need for stress release. And laughter (or even cracking a smile) really is a proven stress reliever with healing benefits.

Many people cringe at the idea of finding anything remotely lighthearted about their dementia stories, and I respect that. Humor is a pretty individual taste, too. The black humor batted heartily around in some families (mine) is seen as distastefully verboten in others.

Before you strafe me with indignant comments over daring to suggest that there might just be more pluses than minuses to laughing about Alzheimer's, though, let me point out the following five good reasons to laugh in the face of Alzheimer's or another dementia:

  • When you both realize something's funny.

A friend's mother once decorated a Christmas tree in spoons, forks, and knives she'd meticulously tied ribbons around. The next day she walked in the room and said, "Well who did a crazy thing like that?"

"You did, Grandma," my friend's 12-year-old piped up. All three generations had to laugh. Mother and son truly weren't laughing at their elder; they were laughing with her.

Many people with dementia are capable of "getting" that they say curious things and make silly gaffes. They can even make jokes at their own expense (especially if they've always been jolly sorts.) My Dad once told me, "I wish I could forget my bowling scores this week, but so far no such luck!"

  • When you need to let off steam.

For some people, jokes are a form of humor that poke harmless fun. There's that old saw about the doctor diagnosing cancer in a patient. "And there's more, I'm afraid. You have Alzheimer's disease." "Well," says the patient cheerfully, "At least I don't have cancer!"

Politically incorrect? Or a "knowing" moment when swapped between, say, two stressed out family caregivers who get the joke because they're living it.

  • When you feel the need to lighten a heavy moment.

Professional caregivers often use little impersonal jokes to distract clients from the indignities of, say, needing help with bathing. There's nothing like unexpected levity to cut tension or alter the mood in a room.

This next example may sound bad written out, but even on her deathbed my mom was making jokes about my dad's memory. Literally, the day she died! Dad has moderate dementia. "At least we'll have our memories," he said to her, sadly. "Not you," she said with a smile breaking through her pain. "You can't remember anything any more!" It sounds cruel, perhaps but you had to be there. Lightened the mood in that room.

  • When you want to normalize the reality of Alzheimer's.

Poking fun at the things that scare or upset us, or that tend to be hidden in shadow, can be a great way to bring it into the light. At the 2008 Oscars, host Jon Stewart introduced the film "Away From Her," about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's, for which Julie Christie was nominated, this way: "a film about a woman who forgets her husband...Hillary Clinton calls it the feel-good movie of the year."

  • When the absurdity of the whole situation strikes you.

You find your car keys in the freezer. Your wife tries to pay for groceries by pulling out a sanitary pad from her wallet. Your husband spends his afternoons debating the man in the hall mirror (the "nice fella" who happens to look exactly like him). Those are the moments that zap you anew, every time, that life is different now, and will never be the same.

Who can blame you for rolling your eyes and snickering to a friend or sibling over the phone about such incidents? "So today Dad answered the door in his underwear again, only to find the minister struggling to maintain her composure (while Dad was as oblivious as if he were wearing his Sunday best)!" Sure, you're "telling tales" on Dad. But some situations just beg to be shared, if only as a way for us to say, "See, I'm not crazy, this really is hard work here!"