Laughter, they say, is the best medicine, so “they” might also say it’s a little too late to administer it to residents of Mt. Vernon and elsewhere who are receiving palliative care. And they would be wrong.
After all, the thinking could go along the lines that someone who is at this terminal point in their life journey is beyond any kind of healing medicine, so there’s no reason to say that laughter will do them or anyone around them any good.
The team at Above and Beyond Home Health Care and Hospice Care will be the first ones to heartily disagree with this opinion. They’ll also be the first ones to help their clients find things that make them laugh on a regular basis.
That doesn’t mean they’ll force them to find death and dying funny especially when to some, end-of-life means it’s time to be serious and somber, and some people facing death aren’t always in the best mood for being told they should try and laugh more. It may feel like the same spirit of telling someone to smile when they obviously don’t wish to right now.
But laughter truly does have a lot of benefits to the body and brain, no matter someone’s health condition. In situations where there are strong, even overpowering feelings, laughter can often be a good way to get the body to release tension – some say it’s a more positive emotion than crying or anger. In situations where it calls for choosing tears of laughter or tears of pain, frustration, or sadness, laughter can be seen as a happier alternative.
So, if the goal of palliative care is to help a patient’s quality of life, especially in a difficult time, then opportunities to bring in humor and laughter fit perfectly and definitely belong.
Why it helps
Research into the power of laughter shows that it has a variety of benefits. It produces endorphins through the whole body, which are natural painkillers/pleasure hormones. These are also produced when you exercise.
Laughter can even count as exercise. Not great exercise, but still exercise. Researchers have found that a good, deep belly laugh can burn about 40 calories. The physical process makes your whole body contract and release. The longer you laugh, the more it burns – think of it as a mini-workout.
So put on a funny movie or get together with your friends and family and really cut loose with the jokes.
Laughter can feel good and also help push away depression.
Interestingly, laughter can have actual healing benefits.
Medical professionals or hospice staff don’t want to give people false hope that it will cure everything, especially if they are in terminal situations, but it has happened.
The most publicized case of “laughter is medicine” was Norman Cousins. He suffered from heart disease, and at one point, doctors gave him a few months to live. He decided to fill his remaining time watching things that made him happy, such as watching Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy films.
He found himself feeling better mentally and physically after rounds of these movies. And he kept living. He shared his self-discovery and self-prescription for funny medicine in several books including “Anatomy of an Illness” and “The Healing Heart”
Although he died in 1990, he did live more than 30 years after his original diagnosis, and he credited it to laughter and a good attitude.
A similar approach from the clinical side was advocated by Dr. Patch Adams, who felt the American medical system is not healthy, and helping people’s spirits with things like laughter are more powerful than medicine and surgery. Of course, he’s encountered resistance, more on the institutional side than the laughter side but he’s still out there. A movie of his life, especially the funny antics with patients, was made with Robin Williams in the lead role.
Learn to laugh more
If you’re someone who generally likes to laugh or at least doesn’t like being serious all the time, speak to your hospice providers.
They can make sure that efforts are made to find ways to lighten things up for you, based on your comfort level. Maybe they can find funny movies or shows you like. Maybe they can recommend books of jokes or funny sites.
They can also advise visitors – even hospice staff – to be prepared to laugh. Laughter can reduce stress but in palliative situations, people aren’t sure how to act or how to feel. Saying “laugh if you want to, cry if you want to” might be the perfect permission people need.
Letting the client initiate the humor can also go a long way to reducing their stress and the stress of those around them.
It doesn’t have to be a full circus with clowns and pratfalls either. It can be just funny observations or things worth a chuckle or two. The more of these, though, the more they build up.
If you’re looking for resources to get started, you’re in luck: April is considered National Humor Month, a celebration created by comedian Larry Wilde, who is the director of the Carmel Institute of Humor.
Visitors can learn about the therapeutic value of humor and how to become a certified Laugh Leader.