Sometimes You Have to Laugh
Savor the Funny Moments that Come with Caregiving
"Perhaps I know why it is man alone who laughs:
He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."
"The human race has one really effective weapon,
and that is laughter."
"If I did not laugh, I would cry."
By Stacey Matzkevich, MSG, MSW, LCSW
Little in life feels better - physically, emotional or spiritually - than a good laugh. Yet we hesitate in most serious situations, especially in caregiving, because it would seem disrespectful. How can you laugh at the way your mother behaves when dementia causes her behavior? Well, caregiving gives us more than our share of tears, but it can provide laughter, too. Give yourself permission to relax in its humorous moments. To paraphrase the old song, when you're smiling, maybe your senior will smile with you.
Laughing is a healthy, powerful way to deal with crisis and sadness in our lives. It lends perspective - helps us see our lives in a different way. And it can be therapeutic, giving you a little distance from an intimately painful situation.
You might see humor in a caregiving situation but restrain your laughter because you feel guilty. If your formerly brilliant father believes the milkman stole his dentures and you laugh - are you ridiculing him? Are you betraying his trust by laughing at his condition? Not always. There's a big difference between cruel heckling and kind, bittersweet laughter.
Use your judgment and discretion and be sensitive. To be safe, wait until the person is out of sight. Go in the next room or simply wait until later before you indulge in a chuckle. You'd never want to make your care recipient feel worse. On the other hand, you don't have to be a stone-faced caregiver, either. Laugh when a truly funny moment emerges. Laugh at yourself! And if you laugh with the kindest intentions and yet hurt your senior's feelings, apologize and mean it.
When social work became too stressful, I would sit and reflect on the genuinely funny things my clients sometimes said or did. These two stories always made me smile.
Ben was a stressful yet wonderful client, full of humor. He gave his age as "991/2." On the day I arranged to have his extremely cluttered apartment cleaned, Ben called in a panic.
"Stacey, come over now! They stole everything!" he said.
He listed the missing items - his watch, Shriners hat, spatula and on and on. I drove to his apartment to help relieve his anxiety.
"Stacey, you must have scared them!" he said when I arrived.
"How is that?" I asked.
"They are returning things!" he said. Ben was starting to find the items he had lost in the first place.
The geriatric evaluation
Betty, one of my most memorable clients, had wonderful one-liners. "You got nice teeth. Are they yours?" Betty was also a stressful client. With no family or friends, she was isolated, barely mobile and increasingly confused.
After much effort Betty agreed to have a comprehensive, daylong geriatric evaluation. When the big day arrived, her aide and I spent two hours getting her down a flight of stairs and into the car. Our destination was the Century City Geriatric Day Hospital in Los Angeles, where she would see a parade of nurses, social workers, doctors and a psychiatrist. Staff members had their work cut out for them - Betty was not thrilled to be there. I returned to my office, knowing she was in good hands.
At the end of the day, I went back to the hospital to hear the results of the evaluation. I entered Betty's room and found her already half-dressed. She was ready to leave and didn't want to wait for help. She looked up at me and delivered one of her best one-liners: "This is the screwiest hairdresser I have ever been to!"