I think sometimes that improvisors and comedians don’t quite get how important comedy is. We refer to improv dismissively as doing the “make-em-ups” as if we are just playing on the stage, spending our time doing something frivolous. Surely a life spent performing somehow just isn’t as substantial and valuable as others pursuits. Right?
My mother suffered from a form of dementia that took away her ability to speak and communicate. For the last couple of years of her life, we could not ask her questions and it seemed that she did not understand complicated sentences. In the last stages, she did not seem to comprehend language at all.
Still, she was engaged with us on other levels. We could understand how she was feeling. She seemed to recognize us and her mood often improved a little when she interacted with one of us kids or with one of the many wonderful aids who helped take care of her. If you had gotten a cut or a bruise since your last visit, she might touch that part of your body. She was a nurse after all, she needed to care for people.
So what does this have to do with comedy? Well there were very few things that kept her attention in these last stages. In the earlier stages we had done crafts and puzzles and encouraged her to draw things. She couldn’t do any of these things after a while and one of the few things that seemed to capture her attention was television. She had her soaps that she always wanted to see and when the soaps were done, we would switch the channel to Hallmark and watch Little House on the Prairie or Mash.
One afternoon, they were running episodes of I Love Lucy instead of Mash and mom did something that she hadn’t done in some weeks, she laughed. It was a distinct and clear giggle. And it wasn’t some random event. She was clearly responding and laughing at the right moments. She got it and thought it was funny. Perhaps she couldn’t understand the words really, but some part of her brain still did get comedy. She wouldn’t be able to explain what just happened on the TV screen, but she knew it was funny.
After that day, my sister started buying all the DVD sets of I Love Lucy and watching it with mom became a frequent activity. Mom never got tired of it. Over time even her laughter became a little muted, but it never failed to elicit some giggles from her. I’m sure it gave her pleasure when few other things could.
So if you ever find yourself taking care of someone with dementia, I’d rent a DVD of I Love Lucy and give it a try. You might be surprised how much your loved one enjoys it. Let me know if it works for you.
And if you do comedy, remember how important it is to laugh. When most pleasures in life fail you, laughter can still break through.