Humour Therapy and Dementia

As published in La Fiamma, L’Angolo Della Terza Eta 16 December 2013

One day Anna came back into the house from the garden and found her mother Concetta sitting in front of the television, laughing hysterically at a “Mr. Bean” comedy program which happened to be screening at the time. Anna was surprised that Concetta found the program funny; Concetta was suffering from vascular dementia and could no longer speak or understand English. From that time on, whenever Concetta seemed depressed, Anna would play a “Mr. Bean” video for her. Sometimes Anna would sit down with her mother and they would laugh together. The good feeling lasted for hours, even days, and Concetta never tired of watching the same program!

Gelotology is the study of humour and its effects on the human body. Research studies have proven that laughter stimulates respiration, relaxes arteries, and improves blood flow. Laughter also helps manage stress and pain, and alleviates anxiety and depression. As the saying goes, “Laughter is the best medicine” [il riso fa buon sangue].

Over the past few years research has been conducted into the effects of Humour Therapy on people suffering from dementia. The SMILE study “Sydney Multisite Intervention of Laughter Bosses and Elder Clowns” was initiated in 2009 and early results proved that laughter can have a positive and lasting effect for people with dementia, even though they may not remember the event that triggered the laughter.

Italians enjoy humour and we have a long history of telling jokes [ barzalette] and funny stories. Some forms of humour cut across language and cultural barriers, particularly “slapstick” comedy which is largely non- verbal, involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of common sense. Hence Concetta’s reaction to Mr. Bean!

If you are caring for someone who has dementia, try to introduce joy and laughter into their daily lives. The simplest way to do this is to laugh and smile yourself. You can also use audio- visual material such as funny songs, movies and TV programs. Most community libraries have an Italian section where such material may be available. There are also free on- line resources accessible via You- tube.

Most older Italians love the work of the Italian comedian Toto ( Antonio De Curtis), nicknamed “il principe della risata” [ the prince of laughter], widely considered one of the greatest Italian artists of the 20th century. He has been compared to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Other famous Italian comedians include Peppino De Filippo, famous for his TV show character “Pappagone”, and Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, known as “Franco and Ciccio”- the Italian Laurel and Hardy of the 1960s.

Also popular amongst older Italians are Federico Fellini films and movies featuring members of the “Rat Pack” of the 1960s- Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davies Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford.

Popular funny songs include “Le canzone dell’osteria” Funiculi Funicula, La Famiglia dei Gobon, I Watussi by Eduardo Vianello, Tu Vuo Fa L’ Americano by Renato Carosone and L’Italiano by Toto Cotugno, and songs by the artist Mina, to name a few.

Many older Italians enjoy funny movies and television programs in other languages too. Some prime examples include Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and the Benny Hill Show, as well as movies featuring the French comedian Jaques Tati, for example Mon Oncle and Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. Even if they don’t understand the language, they can usually relate to the visual gags and funny facial expressions.

As the holiday period approaches, remember that many families experience stress at this time and this is even more reason to keep your sense of humour. Perhaps this is a good time to find out what your loved one finds funny and a suitable gift may be a funny  DVD or CD.

Humour Therapy and dementia in Italian