Dementia: When Laughter Is the Best Medicine

Over the years, there have been several studies about the benefits humor can have on one’s health, let alone for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias. But it was a chance remark from a Witherell family member that got us thinking: Maybe there was something visitors could do to brighten their visits with residents who were suffering from dementia.

As the family member described it: “I used to visit my mom at least once a week when she lived in the Memory Care unit. At first, I found her responsive and talkative. But after a while, our conversations became work, and even got harder when it didn’t seem like I was getting through to her. So, one day (and maybe it was more to amuse myself) I cracked a silly joke. Her eyes opened wide and she laughed. Then she repeated part of the punch line. I was really taken aback. Amazed! So, I figured maybe I was on to something.”

Indeed, he was. What he didn’t realize at the time was that humor can be a potent remedy for those feeling anxious and isolated. “In a way, it’s ‘humor therapy,’” notes John Mastronardi, Executive Director of the Nathaniel Witherell

Others agree. According to the AARP, humor therapy can be as effective as some drugs in managing agitation or anxiety in dementia patients.

The Impact of Laughter

Similarly, when Dani Klein Modisett, a producer in California, who was desperate to get through to her mother residing at a Memory Care unit, she called on comedian she knew for help and asked her to do a comedy routine or tell some jokes to her Mom. When she did, the 84-year old woman, who was depressed and had ceased eating, came to life. Modisett said she was so taken by this discovery that she eventually formed Laughter on Call, which brings comedy care to those suffering from dementia and isolation, among others.

So, what is it about laughter that has such an effect on people?

“Laughter can help reduce depression because it helps shift one’s focus from something unpleasant,” says Mastronardi. “Laughter can even improve memory because it lowers cortisol, a stress hormone, that can negatively affect short term memory function.” Plus, the immune system gets a boost when one’s blood pressure, stress and tension are lowered.

According to health professionals, laughter discharges endorphins or chemicals that are released from the brain that quickly reduce stress, tension, and physical pain. Reducing stress also has the effect of reducing blood pressure.

What You Can Do

Short of hiring a comedian each time you visit your loved one, what can you do to bring on some laughter?

  1. Bring in photos of fun times you and your loved one shared and speak about something that made you laugh.
  2. Show your loved one a picture from a favorite sit-com from the past and reminisce about a particularly funny episode. You may even play a humorous podcast segment on your phone.

If “I Love Lucy” holds a special place in your heart, you might share one of Lucille Ball’s pieces of     wisdom:  “The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and… lie about your age!”

  1. Create a scrap book of cards, photos, drawings, songs, or bring in an audio recording or anything else that will spark conversation and laughter.
  2. Add some jokes to your repertoire. You can find lots online. Then, practice your delivery for maximum effect!

If you would like more information about the Witherell’s Memory Care program, please visit or call Margaret Wayne at 203-618-4247.




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