The Best Medicine for Those with Alzheimer’s
By Becky Streeter
The age-old saying is still as true today as it has been throughout time: laughter is the best medicine. This is an especially good tonic for those living with Alzheimer’s disease. It can be hard getting a person to laugh, though, and even harder if that person is in the throes of mental and/or physical decline. The trick is making a personal connection. Each of us has preferences–you just have to remember, discover or rediscover these preferences together.
The Mayo Clinic lists a number of short- and long-term benefits of laughter including organ stimulation (heart, lungs, muscles), activation of and relief from the stress response, soothed tensions, improved immune system, pain relief, increased personal satisfaction, and improved mood. All good things that everyone needs! We just have to make the time to create that connection.
Start by choosing a broad and largely universal topic such as a first love, first kiss, first car, or first house. For many, these are core memories, deeply ingrained in a person’s being, and for almost all of us, there is a story to tell about any one of those memories. Often those stories have an element of humor (“That one time the car did….” “I couldn’t believe he said…!”) that is likely to get everyone laughing.
Another option is to find something fun that people of all ages can enjoy. Examples are bubbles, balloons, puppets, play doh, etc. Though they might seem childish, it is surprising how the simplest things can elicit smiles and giggles. There is still a kid in all of us, and sometimes drawing that kid out generates pure joy all around.
And laugher doesn’t just benefit the patient, it benefits everyone involved. Patients and loved ones are more likely to be accommodating if they are laughing. If they are accommodating, staff has an easier and more enjoyable time performing necessary tasks. The more laughter, interactions with staff and visitors become better and often more frequent. The more laughter, the better everyone’s day.
Music is also a great way to make a connection. It might not produce fits of laughter like a story of a blundered first kiss or a bubble popping on your nose, but song has a way of touching our spirits like nothing else can. According to Sam Fazio, the senior director of Quality Care and Psychosocial Research with the Alzheimer’s Association, scientists have observed music to produce many benefits in those living with Alzheimer’s. It can improve memory, orientation, depression and anxiety. But it has to be the right music or it won’t work. If your loved one used to rock out at heavy metal paloozas, he or she is not going to be all that thrilled with a beautifully mastered violin concerto.
This type of connection-making is often called person-centered care. It means listening to the loved one or patient, and doing the things they enjoy(ed). Share a nice warm cup of coffee while you talk about that first love. Place a cd player in their room with their favorite music inside and ask the staff to press play when they come in to do their routine checks.
With connection and storytelling, people start to open up. There are many happy, humorous stories, and there are sad stories as well. Whatever pops up, even if it’s not the intended reaction, don’t rush it. Be there for that patient or loved one. Listen to the honor they are giving you that is a part of who they are. That is medicine everyone can benefit from.
Sources: Hollow, Michele C. “How Music and Laughter Can Tap Into the Emotions of People with Alzheimer’s.” Next Avenue. 13 Sept 2022. www.nextavenue.org/how-music-taps-into-the-emotions-of-people-with-alzheimers.
“Stress Relief from Laughter? It’s No Joke.” Mayo Clinic. 29 July 2021. www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456.