How to Add Humor to Your Caregiving Routine

When dementia caused her mom to disconnect from her, Dani Klein Modisett did what came naturally: She hired a comedian.

Posted in , Apr 12, 2021

A woman in her golden years laughing outside; Getty Images

Something changed about a year after Dani Klein Modisett moved her mother to a new senior residence in Los Angeles.

In spite of the fact that her mom was living with Alzheimer’s, she’d adjusted fine to the move from her longtime home in New York City. Then her spirits seemed to flag and she disconnected from others, including her own daughter.

Modisett took a novel approach to the challenge: she phoned a comic.

Her response may have been a little different, but it wasn’t off the wall, given that Modisett herself had spent years as a professional comedian. She had an overriding desire to make her mother laugh, and it worked. The caring comedian she found, hit it off almost instantly with her mom and the two spent a few hours together each week, joking around and just generally relating. The effects were transformative.

The success of that shot in the dark led to Laughter on Call, the company Modisett founded as a way to use comedy to bring people together, especially in tough circumstances.

That includes caregivers and their older loved ones who have dementia or other chronic conditions. In addition to providing “open-hearted, warm and loving” comedians (currently via Zoom) to people who need a bit of levity, Laughter on Call also focuses on self-care for caregivers and helps them to bring humor into the caregiving situation.

“If you can keep yourself joyful or energized and healthy, that’s what you’re bringing to the caregiving,” Modisett said. “It’s not only important for your own well-being and your own sense of burnout, but for the person that you’re caring for.” That can mean anything from laughing to learning conscious breathing, to finding ways to take breaks. 

The type of comedy that works for people with Alzheimer’s is what Modisett calls “humor from your humanity.” No sarcasm, no witty repartee, no current events. It’s broad—exaggerated. 

“You’ve got to be willing to be silly,” she said. “But all laughter is good. It raises endorphins, brings more oxygen to the lungs, exercises facial muscles, there’s a serotonin release. Just on a purely physical level it has value.”  There’s another important aspect, however, to injecting humor into the caregiving relationship. “When you have shared laughter, it’s evidence of connection,” said Modisett, whose mother died last year, having bonded with more than one of the comedians her daughter brought her way. “When you can laugh with someone, you have a certain bond, and that is more than most people do with the Alzheimer’s community. People don’t want to see it because it’s hard.”

As was the case with Modisett and her mom, it’s sometimes difficult for people with Alzheimer’s to connect with those who are close to them, while it can be easier to do so with others.

“The person with the disease has a very heightened sensitivity,” Modisett said. “If there’s something about you that’s familiar that they can’t place, that creates frustration.” And connection goes beyond humor. “I am primarily about cognitive engagement,” she said. “I call it Laughter on Call because Cognitive Engagement on Call is not fun.”

To that end, Modisett has developed a set of caregiving tools she calls BHILATYS. She offered the following tips to help you forge better connections with a loved one who has dementia:

B — Breath

"Taking the time for conscious breathing, even just one, can make a difference in your day. Taking a deep breath not only brings more oxygen to your lungs, it’s gives you a pause before reacting under stress and helps with responding with patience," Modisett said. "I call this tool the first building block of self-care." 

H — Honesty

“Be willing to be honest," Modisett said. "I observed many people in my mother’s community who would be like, ‘Oh hi, mom, you look great! Isn’t it great, it’s so great!’ Not being in the moment, not being truthful, not really meeting the person where they are. You see this a lot in Alzheimer’s care. Meet the person where they are.”

I — Imperfect

“Imperfect is great. My father died of cancer 20-something years ago, and everybody was there the day before, reading to him. Then my mother got Alzheimer’s and in two, maybe three, months, she was down to one friend. Some of it was, ‘I’ll just remember her the way she was.’ There were also people who just didn’t know what to do and they were afraid they wouldn’t do it right," she said. "It wasn’t going to be perfect, so they didn’t come at all. If you show up, you’re 12 steps ahead of most people.”

L — Let go of the moment before

Moods of people with Alzheimer’s tend to be mercurial and impulsive, Modisett said. One moment, your loved one may be angry and upset and the next moment is making silly sounds and waving to people. If you remain invested in the earlier moment, you miss the next one. Meditation can help to let go of thoughts you may be stuck in.  

A — Appreciate

“There’s always time to say, ‘I love you, and I appreciate the opportunity to care for you, or I appreciate X ...’ The hardest one for people is appreciating themselves," Modisett said. " So, I have people write a letter, ‘Dear Me, what I love about you is …’ Then take the time to read that letter.”

T — Timing

Understand the difference between macro-timing and micro-timing. “Macro is, ‘When do we take the keys away?’ or ‘When do we get help ...?’ Then there’s the micro of the day: ‘When do we eat lunch?’ ‘When is a good time to bathe?’ ‘When’s a good time for visitors, so she doesn’t get frustrated? Definitely not after 4.’ Things like that.”

Y —Yes, and …

“Don’t argue with anybody in memory decline," Modisett said. "You’re never going to win. You’re just going to frustrate yourself. So, it’s kind of, ‘Yes and yes, and we try this [instead]."

S — Silly

“Don’t be afraid to be silly. At Laughter on Call, we put on music, we dance, we make a funny face," Modisett added. "Even people in end stage Alzheimer’s can mirror the face back. So, communicate physically with a voice or something that connects with them, and they do it back. That’s something we really believed in and pursued, rather than this, ‘Well, I don’t’ know, he’s gone, what’s the point?’ They hear you! They’re in there!”

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