How To Live and Laugh with Alzheimer’s
There’s nothing funny about Alzheimer’s. But in the 13 years I lived with the disease (AD), I learned that a good laugh is often the best medicine.
Before AD claimed her life, I tried to make my wife Maxine as happy as possible every day of the week. Even though she had lost her memory, she responded cheerfully to amusing stories of our marriage and to my limited repertoire of jokes.
One thing about AD, you can repeat a story or gag to a victim of Alzheimer’s, and it’s always new.
A good laugh is good for the heart and mind. Like exercise, it makes blood vessels work more efficiently, especially those in the brain.
Laughing on a regular basis increases the average blood flow 22 percent, while mental stress decreases 35 percent, according to the American College of Cardiology.
Laughter is not a substitute for exercise, however. But the University of Maryland School of Medicine reports that those who laugh frequently are healthier than those who don’t.
Its studies revealed that 30 minutes of exercises three times a week, coupled with 15 minutes of laughter daily, are not only good for the vascular system, they can help ward off depression.
And depression is one of the fundamental factors in the building blocks of dementia.
Moreover, ongoing studies at the University of Chicago show that laughing regularly can stimulate genes involved in developing a healthier brain. Unfortunately, the brains of persons with AD are generally beyond repair.
Nevertheless, for some unknown reason, a funny anecdote or gag can evoke a positive response from AD sufferers.
I’d tell Maxine little witticisms related to our travels, like the time we enjoyed a delicious ham sandwich in an elegant Geneva cafe, only to find out later we had eaten donkey meat.
No one appreciated the therapeutic value of laughter in a senior setting more than entertainer Art Linkletter, who spent much of his time and energy boosting the spirits of AD victims all across the country.
One elderly woman in a St. Louis care home turned the tables on Art when he asked, “Do you know who I am?” The lady said, “No, but if you go to the front desk, they’ll tell you.”
One-liners are best. People with AD can usually grasp short, punchy sentences more easily. The late Rodney Dangerfield was a master of the one-liner. (“My girl called and said come on over, nobody’s home. I went over. Nobody was home.”)
To see Maxine grin broadly, and at times laugh out loud, gave me more gratification than most anything else I could name.
Witty tales about her childhood usually triggered a hint of recognition. I’d remind Maxine that as a little girl she was quite mischievous. She hated soft eggs and made no bones about it.
One day at breakfast, her mother told her to sit there until she ate all her eggs. When her mother left the room, Maxine quickly and quietly dumped them down the toilet.
Returning, her mother saw the clean plate and said, “Now see dear, those eggs weren’t so bad, were they?”
The more personal the quip, the louder she’d laugh. That was particularly true if the joke was on me. Like my father’s reaction to my high school report card.
After studying it in silence, my dad said, “Well, there’s one thing in your favor, son. With grades like these, you couldn’t possibly be cheating!”
Also, if something happened or was stated that implicated her at any given moment, Maxine would respond spontaneously with the first thought that crossed her troubled mind.
For example, one day the caregiver had difficulty getting her into the shower. “Now Maxine,” said the caregiver, “You must take your shower.” She said, “Why?” The caregiver said, “Because Mother Nature wants you to be clean.” Maxine: “I don’t know her!”
Another time we were sitting with one of our six daughters, Marquita, when Maxine suddenly asked, “Am I married?” Marquita said, “You certainly are”