The value of humor with Alzheimer’s

You’ll notice that in many of the worship services offered on this site, I include some kind of humorous story or jokes. In addition, during bible studies I often stop and point out amusing notes that pertain to the passage, like the stinky smell of sheep (Luke 15) or the image of the persistent widow pounding on the judge’s door in the middle of the night (Luke 18).

You may be wondering: Is humor in this context appropriate?

I think it is. Using humor is not about being an entertainer or looking clever, and it’s most emphatically not about ridiculing or exploiting the otherworldliness of Alzheimer’s. But for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s, I often repeat this key lesson: It’s all about mood management.

Why humor works

When ministering to people with dementia, my goal is simply and always to make them a little happier, elicit a smile, offer reassurance, hear their frustrations, not brush them off or ignore their fear and anger, and ensure they feel just a bit safer. I hope to spark a little light in their day.

Humor is an outstanding way to accomplish this. In the middle of a church service, telling an Aesop’s fable, a funny story, or a short, clean joke engages residents’ emotions with delight and whimsy. It lightens the mood, lifts the spirits, even maintains dignity with the joy of a shared joke.

For example, when talking about growing in character, this joke always gets a laugh:

“Dear Heavenly Father,

So far today, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped or lost my temper. I haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, or self-centered. I’m really happy about that. But in a few minutes I’m going to be getting out of bed, and then I’m going to need a lot of help. Thank you. Amen.”

I also often stop during the scripture readings if something strikes me as funny or unusual or astonishing. For example, in reading the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Mark 9, when I get to the part where Jesus’ “clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them,” I stop and say something like, “Wow! Brighter than bleach! Have you ever seen someone with bleached hair?! Shines like a beacon from a block away, right?”

And of course, during small-group bible studies, the residents themselves will often crack me up, and it’s important to go with it and laugh along.

How one bible study went off the rails

The other day I got schooled by some wonderful memory-impaired seniors when I attempted to make a point with what I thought was a particularly good analogy.

We were talking about Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

I launched into my clever analogy. (Names have been changed.)

Me: “Let’s say you have a friend who has kidney disease, and they really need another kidney, and you decide to give your friend one of yours.”

Ralph: “Why do we have two kidneys?”

Me (pause): “Um… well, there you go! Maybe you have two so you can give one to someone else! The body has a lot of twos: two eyes; you could lose one eye and you’d still be able to see; two hands … well, it would be a bummer to lose a hand, but you’d get along …”

I trailed off as I realized that the topic was devolving into gruesome territory. I tried to regroup.

Me: “Anyway, you decided to give one of your kidneys to your friend, and it all went great – you came out of the surgery fine, your friend came out fine, and you both are healthy and alive! Now: what if one day that same friend, the one you gave your kidney to, came to you and said, ‘hey, I’m out of sugar; could I borrow a cup of your sugar?’ What would you say?”

Fran (leaning in, looking very serious, thoughtful, and resolute): “Well, I’d say, I don’t think sugar is very good for your health. It’s really not a good idea for you to have so much sugar, so I’m terribly sorry, but no, you can’t have a cup of sugar. I’m not going to give it to you. It wouldn’t be good for you.”

Me (laughing as I realize my analogy is completely flawed): “Fran, you are absolutely right! It would be a terrible idea to give them sugar, because it’s unhealthy for them! OK, you’re right – I definitely shouldn’t use that example.”

I had to think fast … quick, what’s something healthy?

Me: “Um, OK, how about an apple: What would you do if the person you gave your kidney to came to you and said, ‘could I borrow an apple?’”

Janice (leaning in, looking incredulous and slightly disgusted): “Borrow an apple? Who borrows an apple?”

Me (laughing again): “Gosh, you’re right! I guess they’d have to ask you to give them an apple – you wouldn’t expect someone borrow an apple …”

By this time I think the entire group thought I had a screw loose, but they patiently hung with me. Eventually we did get to the idea that of course you’d give your sugar-challenged, apple-craving friend what they asked for, because that would be easy; the hard thing was giving them your kidney!

But I learned two things: one, to think through my analogies a bit better; and two, laughing at myself – as the group laughs with me – keeps me humble and makes for a more fun bible study.

Try it, you’ll like it

So don’t be nervous about making silly comments, cracking a gentle joke, or joining in with someone’s nonsensical word salad. You’re not poking fun at the disease. You’re using humor and laughter for their highest purpose: to bring joy to the soul.

Peace be with you,


2 thoughts on “The value of humor with Alzheimer’s

  1. Dale C. Willard says:

    Elisa, this cracked me up. I read it to Myra and we had a wonderful laugh going off the rails with you. This shines with love and humility and some very good pointers. BraVO!



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