Caregiving Humor: If We Don't Laugh We'll Cry

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Question:

Dear Candid Caregiver: My mother is in a lovely assisted living facility and I have to say that she’s having a ball. While she’s always had a tendency to play “the Grand Lady,” this arrangement seems to have given her even more of a feeling of entitlement. There’s another woman with a similar personality and they seem to have a turf war going on, even to the point of “recruiting” people for their tables. I’m thrilled that Mom has competition – it’s about time – and I find the whole scenario funny. I don’t see a problem with laughing at some of these situations, but I have a friend who is deadly serious about every aspect of aging and she thinks that I should be taking this seriously and even be saddened by this “decline.” She doesn’t seem to understand that this is Mom on steroids, so I may as well enjoy the show as long as she has a worthy opponent. If she were picking on a sweet lady who couldn’t stand up for herself I’d alert the staff, but even they find this rather amusing since no one is getting hurt. Is my friend right or can we laugh at some of these situations without being callous? – Laughing Daughter

Answer:

Dear Laughing Daughter: Caregiving can have many joys and rewards but let's be realistic – it can also be exhausting, difficult, and sometimes down right grim. My feeling is that any time we can find a reason to laugh at circumstances we probably should.

I feel that there’s a tremendous difference between laughing at circumstances and laughing at people who are struggling and can’t help their situation. You've pointed out similar feelings so I have no doubt that you are doing fine by getting some laughs with the staff when you can.

I had an uncle whom I loved dearly, but he was a difficult person his whole life. He, too, had a sense of entitlement, some of which was due to his military rank since he retired as a colonel but still went on to high civilian standing. He loved being called Colonel, which everyone at the nursing home did without question. Well, everyone except one gentleman who happened to leave the army as a corporal. He found my uncle’s attitude insufferable and he called him “Corporal” whenever he could get away with it. This, in turn, made my uncle fume. The staff and I had many a secret chuckle about his behavior because, like your mom, this wasn’t a fantasy derived from dementia, it was just a magnification of his life-long personality and the fact that he was used to deference in his work.

There’s a tremendous difference between laughing at circumstances and laughing at people who are struggling.

Another example of laughter when caregiving came along when my friend and neighbor, Joe, who was my first care receiver, would shout embarrassing things like, “There goes a fat one!” when he saw a large person out in public. Did I laugh when Joe did that? No. Did I laugh when I retold the story? Yes. I felt bad for the person who was the target of his rudeness and bias, but Joe's behavior was so outlandish that I would have cried had I not had some laughs.

A third example that I could cite (there were many) was when my mom was dying. Mom’s roommate had Alzheimer’s and would frequently inquire about my mom’s health, or lack thereof, by asking, “Is she dead yet?

Laughing Daughter, if caregivers can’t laugh at some of their elders’ situations, all they would do is cry.  You aren’t laughing at your mother and her nemesis because they have a disease. They simply have allowed age to solidify less than lovely parts of their personalities and now they’ve found each other so they can mutually take out their aggression. No one is getting hurt, so you and the staff have every right to laugh.

As I mentioned, we caregivers have more than enough to cry about. We have huge amount of sympathy and empathy when the situation demands it. Why can’t we see humor where humor lies and enjoy it? Blessings my friend. You’re doing fine.