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Finding Humor for Emotional Strength

In Diem Perdidi by Julie Otsuka, the narrator recounts her experiences dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s progression. Alzheimer’s is an unforgiving, unpredictable disease. Periods of lucidity are contrasted with periods of confusion. Memories are conflated in a cruel time-traveling continuum, as short-term memory is often erased, but long-term memories remain.

hand in handAs with all terminal illnesses, witnessing a loved one’s decline of mental or physical faculties is heart-wrenching. The “best” way to cope varies by patient, situation and family. Many people get assistance from health care providers, support groups and other family members. Emotional strength and understanding are helpful coping mechanisms for handling the patient’s day-to-day behavioral swings, pain and disorientation. But there is another tool to consider: Humor. Yes, finding humor amid a dark and dreadful situation can be beneficial and provide a release for the feelings of despair experienced by those around the patient.

As Paul Marcus points out in the book How to Laugh Your Way Through Life, Freud noted that humor is “one of the highest psychical achievements,” a valuable weapon against the adversity and challenges of life. This is how my family sometimes dealt with my grandma’s dementia. She moved in with my family after my grandpa died. I was just 10 years old at the time; she was 80. My dad had an addition built onto our house, so she had her own room and bathroom, but shared the kitchen and family room with us. There were some growing pains during this transition. It could be tough for me and my siblings as we grew up with this alteration of the family dynamic. And most especially my mother, who had the biggest role as the main caregiver.

At first, my grandma’s mind was still as sharp as it was during her many years as a schoolteacher, but eventually we noticed memory lapses, confusion and moodiness, where she could get snappish and even downright rude. So yes, sometimes finding the humor in her comments was a way to deal with a difficult situation. Like when she barked orders at one of us, or announced she was 200 years old on her 91st birthday, or claimed that “there’s too many cooks in the kitchen” when one of us had a friend over. We weren’t laughing at her, we just needed to make light of the situation, especially as her time with us stretched into years and my siblings and I grew into teenagers and young adults.

Eventually she had to be transferred into a nursing home to get the proper care. But my years living in such close proximity to someone suffering from dementia gave me a better understanding of this awful condition, how it affects those around them, and the various ways to cope with it. A cure for this devastating disease cannot come soon enough.

Related books on this topic in the Rutgers Library include: What Made Freud Laugh by Judith Kay Nelson, A Critique of Positive Humour by Michael Billig and Distributed, Ambient, and Pervasive Interactions by Claire Dormann.