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The Science of Humor in Caregiving

The Science of Humor in Caregiving

One of my favorite personal humorous stories of dementia care happened back when I was leading activities on the memory care unit of an assisted living facility. A resident came to me irate that there was a man in his room removing his mattress from his bed frame! I went to check out the scene, and one of our male participants who liked to wander had found his way into the resident’s room, and was indeed pushing the mattress across the floor. I asked him why, and the man, whose word loss was fairly severe at that stage, replied simply, “It seemed reasonable at the time!”

Every caregiver seems to have an arsenal of comical caregiving tales to share with anyone who can relate. When caring for someone with a disease whose devastating effects and chronic long-term stressors are arguably unmatched, it is no wonder we hold so closely to these little pockets of joy.  After all, as Henry Ward Beecher explained, “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.”

Most people have heard about the positive physical and psychological effects of humor and laughter. Research has shown many benefits:

  • Decreasing stress hormones (Tan & Schneider, 2009)
  • Improving respiration by decreasing carbon dioxide in the lungs (Fry & Rader, 1977)
  • Boosting our immune system through increased production of T-cell lymphocytes (Locke, 1980) and salivary immunoglobulin A (Dillon & Baker, 1985)
  • Releasing feel-good hormones including norepinephrine, dopamine (Fry, 1992), and endorphins (Sliter et al., 2014)
  • Reduce mortality in those diagnosed with cancer (Fritz et al., 2017)
  • Better coping abilities when faced with life stressors (Nezu & Blissett, 1988)

All of these findings scientifically make sense of what most people have intuited: humor and laughter are good for your body and spirit.

There are multiple theories regarding exactly how humor brings about so many positive effects. In their review of the literature, Sliter et al. (2014) found that humor may encourage a more positive reinterpretation of a situation, it may encourage social bonding by sharing humor with others, or it may all simply be attributed to the physiological processes of the body.

But we must use some caution in employing humor, because research is finding that not all humor is created equal. Fritz et al. (2017) explain that aggressive humor meant to belittle others, and self-defeating humor can actually have negative effects on its user. And of course, using humor at the expense of someone with a dementia diagnosis is never appropriate. Similarly, putting too much pressure on caregivers to utilize humor as a coping mechanism can add stress to an already stressful situation (Fritz et al., 2017)! Humor has a time and a place – qualitative evidence suggests that caregiver support groups are among the best places to tell your stories (Tan & Schneider, 2009).

One more story to brighten your spirits. I was leading an activity in which the residents each had a photo, and I was helping prompt them to craft a story based on what they saw. The photo that day was of two penguins who were holding hands waddling off into the icy sunset. The activity came with suggested questions to help facilitate the story by encouraging the residents to enter into the scene – its sights, smells, tastes, etc. I cued a woman who was relatively new to the residence and none too pleased to be there, hoping to encourage her to get involved. “Betty, what do you think it smells like?”, I asked. She responded, “Smells like sh*t!”

Life is about creating moments of joy. Looking for a quick fix of endorphins?  A quick internet search will yield a gold mine of laughs! Try these:

And don’t forget to get your daily dose of cute animal videos – which, they say, also releases happy hormones!:

 

Author
Stephanie Houpt is the Program Director at Insight Memory Care Center.

 

 

References
Dillon, K. & Baker, K. (1985). Positive emotional states and enhancement of the immune system. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 15, 13-18.

Fritz, H. L., Russek, L. N., & Dillon, M. M. (2017). Humor use moderates the relation of stressful life events with psychological distress. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 845-859. doi: 10.1177/0146167217699583

Fry, W. F. (1992). The physiologic effects of humor, mirth, and laughter. Journal of the American Medical Association, 267, 1857-1858.

Fry, W. F. & Rader, C. (1977). The respiratory components of mirthful laughter. Journal of Biological Psychology, 19, 39-50.

Locke, S. (1980). Stress, adaptation and immunity: Studies in humans. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 49-58.

Nezu, A. & Blissett, S. (1988). Sense of humor as a moderator of the relation between stressful events and psychological distress: A prospective analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 520-525.

Pollmann, J.W. (1999). The use of humor by caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer’s Disease. (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations Publishing database. (UMI No. 9961831)

Sliter, M., Kale, A., & Yuan, Z. (2014). Is humor the best medicine? The buffering effect of coping humor on traumatic stressors in firefighters. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35, 257-272. doi: 10.1002/job.1868

Tan, T., Schneider, M. (2009). Humor as a coping strategy for adult-child caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease. Geriatric Nursing, 30(6), 397-408. doi: 10.1016/j.gerinurse.2009.09.004

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