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Massage Today
June, 2014, Vol. 14, Issue 06

In Life, as in Work, Never Forget the Power of Laughter

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR

A few weeks ago, I was teaching a workshop at a retirement community. A therapist in our group asked a woman who was hard of hearing and a little confused if she would like to receive compassionate touch. The woman replied, "I could use some passionate touch, honey, but not from you!"

When people find out I work with people in long-term eldercare and hospice, they comment about how depressing it must be. Of course, there are sad and serious times but being a care-partner isn't always heavy and burdensome. It carries with it the whole range of human emotions from sadness to anger to joy to fear to humor. All emotions have their place, even in end-of-life care. But sometimes things happen that are just plain funny. A lot of comic relief can come from remarks and situations that happen when serving as a caregiver.

The Best Medicine

One day I walked by a woman sitting in the hallway at a nursing home and she grabbed my arm and said, "Have you peed? If you need to go, go on in. You can go first." It's okay to laugh. More than okay, it's therapeutic.

Think about the last time you had a good belly laugh. You know the one, when you had tears running down your face. Hopefully it wasn't that long ago! Why does laughing feel so good?

Laughter has been shown to have psychological and physiological effects. During and immediately after laughing, heart rate, respiration rate and oxygen consumption increases. After a few moments, heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure decrease and muscles relax. The stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine decrease, too. Sounds a lot like an overall relaxation response we seek out to ease stress, doesn't it?

old couple - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark I remember a frail woman that lived in a skilled nursing facility who I saw for several sessions. She had many serious medical issues including diabetes that had claimed both of her legs and affected her mental abilities. Her mood seemed very sad to me. Somehow, our conversation led to talking about, as young women, we both had a habit of biting our fingernails. I noticed that her nails now were long and recently manicured. I asked her how she managed to quit biting them. For the first time, she smiled widely and said, "I lost my teeth!" Then we both burst out laughing. After that, her smile came more easily during our visits.

Making Connections

When I share a sense of humor with a client, our connection is stronger. Even just a moment of joy opens the way for a positive relationship. My client is more open to receive the benefit of any hands-on techniques and is more likely to understand self-care instruction. I find humor to be especially helpful in connecting with people living with Alzheimer's disease. The ability to recognize and experience human emotions is a strength that remains intact far into the disease. This includes the ability to smile and laugh, offsetting feelings of fear and loneliness that come from memory loss and sensory deterioration.

One day, I used lavender oil in the massage lotion and a client exclaimed brightly, "You make me smell like a princess!" Caregivers who develop a healthy sense of humor suffer less from exhaustion and frustration. Sharing stories of funny things that happen provided a healthy outlet during a time laden with lots of not-so-funny circumstances. I've attended caregiver support groups where people were doubled over with laughter. I wish I had written those stories down! Here's such a story I found on the caregiver support website

"I came home yesterday from work and Mom came out to the kitchen to greet me. I said, 'Mom, you have on my sweat pants!' We each have a pair of soft, comfy pea green sweats. Hers are a size 14 and mine are a few sizes bigger. She says, 'I thought I had lost a lot of weight!' Then she pulls up her shirt to show me she had them pinned to her bra to keep them up! We had a good laugh!" - Patti4Mom

Sometimes, unexpected humor arises from poignant situations. Tim is a Pastoral Thanatologist who attended a recent workshop. He shared this story:

"Out of concern for the sorrow of a recently widowed resident, a nursing staff called me to the unit for a bereavement visit. I was informed that the resident had dementia due to a CVA (stroke) and spoke very little. When she did speak, it was usually after a three or four minute delay. Outwardly, I just smiled at the staff, but inwardly I was screaming, 'What are they thinking? What do they expect me to do with her?'I looked her right in the eyes as I explained to her why I was visiting. I told her who I was, what my role was and reviewed the death of her husband. I let her know that I was aware that it may take her several minutes to respond. I informed her I would wait in silence for her to respond. Then the waiting started. Minutes passed with nary a movement by the woman. Then, she took off the sunglasses she wore to protect her from the brightness of lights and handed them to me. An eternity later she said: 'How did he die?' I repeated the story of his death in the hospital. I became silent once again and stared deeply into her eyes anticipating what marvelous statement she might make next. An eternity elapsed as I looked at her. And then she said, 'Are you going to stare at me the whole time?' I quickly recovered, apologized and moved my chair to a position that allowed for personal space. For forty minutes we danced this dance, talking, waiting and being graced with her response. She made seven statements in total. As our visit came to a close, I slowly stroked her arm and finished with an attentive touch of her hand. As I prepared to take her back to the dining room, she looked up at me and asked, 'Do you have a business card?'"

Stillness overcomes agitation.
Peace overcomes the warring emotions.
Simple truths confound the wisest intellect.
Laughter confounds the most serious of situations.
Why not be still?
Why not be at peace?
Why not be simple?
And never, never forget to share the laughter.
- Doug Smith, The Tao of Dying


  1. Bennett HJ. (2003) Humor in Medicine. Southern Medical Journal; 96(12):1257–61.
  2. Burton S. (2003) Why not laugh? Inconvenience Productions, Minneapolis, MN.
  3. Strean, W. (2009) Laughter Prescription, Can Fam Physician. Oct; 55(10): 965–967.
  4. Masatoshi, T., (2010) Laughter and Humor as Complementary and Alternative Medicines for Dementia Patients, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 10:28.
  5. Sollitto, M., (2010) Top 25 Caregiver Stories of 2010,
  6. Pattillo, C, (2001) Laughter is the Best Medicine, American Journal of Nursing.
  7. Beck, R. (2001) The Active Ingredients in Humor: Psycho-physiological benefits and risks for Older Adults. Educational Gerontology, 27

Click here for previous articles by Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR.


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