The Hilarious World of…Dementialand?

This is it, guys. My final post before I go on summer break. (To be fair, summer break seems a long way away since it’s about 35 degrees and rainy in Iowa right now.) I’ll be back in the fall. I’ll miss you. Really.

I was on the road for work last week. During this trip, I became very grateful for two things: 1) podcasts, and 2) my friend CJ who recommends the best podcasts.

CJ recently recommended I listen to “The Hilarious World of Depression,” a podcast where comedians talk about their issues with depression. Good call, CJ. I love it. It’s equal parts funny and depressing, as you might expect. I have to admit it’s reassuring in an odd way. (And, to be honest, it’s less depressing than “S-Town,” which I listened to before “The Hilarious World of Depression” and brought me to the verge of tears at least twice somewhere on I-90 in central Illinois. I won’t be a spoiler, but “S-Town” is a real downer.)

Early in the podcast, the host makes a comment about how his life has been full of both comedy and depression. It occurred to me that these are two independent variables which may not always be negatively correlated. Comedy doesn’t mean the absence of depression. Depression doesn’t mean the absence of comedy. They can co-exist.

And it got me thinking….could there be a podcast called “The Hilarious World of Dementia?” (Not that I’m considering starting one. I don’t like my voice when I hear recordings of it, and I might get in trouble for copying the depression podcast anyway.)

Is dementia funny? My answer, I guess, is that it’s no less funny than depression. Dementia kills…then again, so does depression. Two serious issues. In fact, two issues that are public health crises. Where’s the humor in that?

If I have been given a natural gift, it’s that I am almost always able to see the humor in difficult situations. I’ve only recently starting viewing this as a gift. In fact, it’s gotten me in a trouble a few times, usually because I see situations as hilarious when others don’t get the humor. I can come off as insensitive if I’m not careful.

What I’ve realized is that finding humor doesn’t make situations less sad or scary. It just helps me cope with the sadness and the fear. Maybe you can apply that to dementia–or depression. Or just about anything else. Comedy doesn’t take away the bad stuff, but it helps you get through it.

Once I spoke to a woman whose mother had Alzheimer’s. Her mother’s favorite restaurant was Steak and Shake, home of those controversial skinny greasy fries you either love or hate. As her mother’s disease progressed, she thought she’d take her out of the nursing home for an afternoon and head to Steak and Shake.

As they finished eating, her mom said she needed to use the restroom. The woman thought she might need help, so she went with her. Although her mom was physically capable of using the restroom, she needed some prompting.

The woman prompted her mother to pull down her pants, and her mother balked.

“I can’t take off my pants or the man won’t bring me Skittles,” the mother said. The daughter had no idea what “man” she was referring to, and she was surprised to hear her mom talk about a candy she had probably eaten three times in her life. Yet, the mother could not be convinced to pull her pants down. A battle ensued.

The daughter got creative and pulled out her cell phone. She put the phone up to her ear and had a conversation with the “man.”

“Will my mom still be able to have Skittles if she pulls her pants down?” she asked. Then she nodded. “Okay, great, thank you.”

And the mother pulled her pants down and used the restroom. Well-played.

As the daughter told me this story, she explained that there was a moment where she had to make a conscious decision about whether she would find the humor in this.

“I’m standing in the restroom at Steak and Shake making a fake phone call to try to convince my mother that she can still have Skittles if she pulls her pants down,” she recounted. “It was sad. And then I decided I was gonna appreciate how ridiculously funny it was as well. Because if I couldn’t find the humor, I wasn’t gonna survive.”

Dementia isn’t a joke. Dementia is brutal and fatal. And I know you can’t always laugh, but if you have the choice between laughing and crying, go ahead and laugh….because laughing won’t always be an option. And don’t ever apologize for finding humor in the strange world that is dementia. Sometimes things are just funny. You aren’t making fun of your loved one; you are just getting through in the best way you know how.

Caregivers often say to me “I know I shouldn’t find this funny but….” And then comes a story that they feel guilty for finding humorous. Stop feeling guilty, caregivers. It’s okay to laugh. You will be a better caregiver if you can find at least a small amount of humor in your everyday life.

There’s a risk in associating humor and dementia that I cannot deny. I don’t want people to think dementia itself is funny. As a society, we do have a challenge in getting people to understand that dementia isn’t just about forgetting in old age. It’s so much more than that. The memory loss, as I often say, isn’t the worst part for many individuals and families. Alzheimer’s and related dementia diagnoses are serious and life-altering, but funny things do happen along the way. It’s okay to laugh when those funny things happen.

Now that I think about it, I’d probably say the same thing about life in general. You laugh when you can–because you never know when your next chance to laugh might be.

Another revelation from my new podcast obsession…

A comedian makes the point that having depression is like knowing there’s a magic wand that’s five feet away from you that could make you feel better but not being able to get up of the couch and grab that magic wand–and thinking it wouldn’t work for you anyway. This made me realize that the cruelest illnesses are those that take away your ability to help yourself.

There are things that might make a person with depression feel better. Exercise. Spending time with friends. Going to see a counselor. All of these things take motivation and effort, which depression targets. In a way, depression takes away your ability to fight depression. How do you battle a disease that inflicts symptoms that prevent you from battling that disease?

The more I think about it, the more I realize dementia is similar to depression in this sense.

Dementia makes self-care so difficult. First of all, it saps your energy and makes you unable to follow through with tasks. When I meet someone with dementia symptoms and explain the resources available to them (or even how to get an appointment with a neurologist), I might as well be telling them that they need to run six consecutive marathons and solve a mathematical proof.

In all honestly, there are many individuals who have dementia and are unable to seek or accept assistance because their disease is telling them that they’re just fine…that they don’t need help at all. How do you fight a disease when the disease is telling you that you have don’t have a disease? Sure, I can talk to their family as well, but families are often times so shell-shocked that seeking resources can be overwhelming and challenging. And how does a family member help an individual with dementia when that person doesn’t have the self-insight to realize they have dementia?

Thank you to the creators of “The Hilarious World of Depression” for making my long drives in smoky-smelling rental cars more tolerable. Thank you for giving me something interesting to think about as I drove past cornfields and….well, mostly cornfields.

My next podcast? I’ll have to ask CJ. But how about something a bit more lighthearted?

 

4 thoughts on “The Hilarious World of…Dementialand?

  1. hun just did my first stand up comedy and 3 mins of my 6 were about mum’s dementia. I hate this disease but some days the situations are so funny. I will be working on more dementia material but atm our group is limited to 6 min sets. I did enter the Raw comedy quest and got to semi’s with this set. so do it, bring it to light and let us laugh about our crazy world 🙂

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  2. Amen … But depressing that we have to explain to not feel guilty when using humor during a battle. It works for cancer too. You should have seen me & my hairdresser laughed through shaving my head because she gave me a mohawk first.

    Guilt is NOT an option!

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  3. Loved this post. It helped me feel better about my weird, sometimes hysterical, laughter at what goes on in my life as caregiver to a husband whose sense of humor is still intact.

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  4. When a PET scan 2 years ago revealed I have early-onset Alzheimer’s, I thought it was an appropriate moment to begin heeding in earnest the wisdom of Proverbs 17:22 — “A joyful heart is good medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones”. Having done a bit of standup comedy from time to time, I decided to write some jokes that focus on Alzheimers’ in a winsome way. Beyond providing “good medicine” for me (and anyone who thought they were funny), they also took the edge off the enormous amount of fear and anxiety my family and friends were experiencing. More often than not, people laugh or at least smile while shaking their head while saying “you’re crazy”. If I ever tell any of the jokes in a large public setting (only once so far), I include a caveat acknowledging the serious nature of the disease and the incredible impact it brings to those who have it and to their care-givers.

    I realize there will be a day when I won’t understand jokes much less be able to write them. Until then, I plan to implement this wisdom of God as often as I can.

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