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When Laughter Is the Only Medicine

For caregivers, life is filled with gut-wrenching moments that are best treated with a healthy dose of humor

By Jane Heller | January 7, 2014

There's nothing remotely amusing about seeing a spouse in pain, moving an aging parent into a nursing home or saying goodbye to a dear friend in hospice. For America's estimated 65 million caregivers, life is made up of such gut-wrenching moments — but humor can be an essential tool for handling all of them.
 
Black humor, gallows humor, scatological humor, ironic humor – whatever provides a release from stress, exhaustion and cruel realities is a weapon to be deployed whenever possible.
 
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It has always been my coping mechanism of choice. Growing up in a family of squabbling stepsiblings, I tried to defuse the tension at the dinner table by telling jokes, doing impersonations, anything to get a laugh and prevent somebody from bolting in a huff. As the author of 13 novels of romantic comedy, humor has served me well professionally, too. Over the years, many readers have told me that the humor in the books helped them through tough times.
 
What's So Funny About Illness?

For the past 20 years, I've been the caregiver to my husband, Michael, who suffers from severe Crohn’s disease and has been hospitalized nearly 100 times for intestinal obstructions, complications from surgeries and medication-related infections. I don't think either of us — or our marriage — would have survived without humor. It's not funny when he's doubled over with cramps. It's not funny when he lands in the emergency room on Christmas Eve instead of celebrating with friends and family. It's not funny when he runs to the bathroom 20 times in a day and can't leave the house.
 
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But here's how Michael and I find the "funny" in Crohn's:

  • I call him "The Incredible Hulk" when he's bloated and moonfaced from taking steroids.
  • I dub my car "the ambulette" when it's pressed into service to transport him to the hospital.
  • We call the bathroom "the situation room" because he's always rushing there with a sense of urgency. We had an especially good laugh a few years ago when we saw that Wolf Blitzer had named his CNN show after our bathroom!
  • And when he's on a gurney to be wheeled into the operating room, I say, "You'd better not die or I'll kill you," which makes him laugh as he heads into surgery. That joke became the title of my book, a caregiver's survival guide to staying in good health and good spirits.

Finding Humor Wherever We Can

Sometimes, we caregivers feel that if we don't laugh, we might explode. Science confirms the value of humor for anyone experiencing illness or stress. Since Norman Cousins launched the humor therapy movement in 1979, multiple studies have found real health benefits from laughing and even just smiling. Laughter has been shown to boost the production of "killer" cells that attack viruses and tumors; relieve stress and inflammation; lower "bad" cholesterol; improve cardiovascular function; and decrease pain, at least in part because of the distraction humor provides. "Laughing lowers cortisol levels and provokes a relaxation response," certified health coach Nancy Kalish says. "Even faking or forcing your laughter does the same thing."
 
Several of the caregivers I interviewed for my book shared tales of how laughter helped them manage a loved one's medical condition. Actress Linda Dano laughed about how she kept shoveling food into her husband in his last months so he wouldn't look like "a skinny, gray cancer patient" when he died, only to have him gain so much weight that he couldn't fit into the clothes they'd picked out for him to wear in his coffin. "I had to have the funeral director cut the back of his Armani suit because he was too frigging fat to fit in it!"

Jeanne Phillips, who recently lost her mother, "Dear Abby" creator Pauline Phillips, to Alzheimer's, laughed about the day her mom, then in her 80s, started flirting with some attractive young men, none of them over 45, who were sitting at the bar in a West Hollywood restaurant. Jeanne, sensing the awkwardness, told them, "My mother always did have a great eye for good-looking men," at which point Pauline turned on her and said loudly, "Don't say I'm your mother. Tell them I'm your sister!"
 
As vital as it is to see the humor in our own situations, it can also be useful to seek outside comic entertainment, from "I Love Lucy" reruns to the latest Judd Apatow movie. When we can replace our anxious, woe-is-me thoughts with funny, lighthearted ones, we're in business. "Even if you don't think it'll be funny," Kalish says, "watch it anyway because a little bit of humorous distraction really does help."
 
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Humor can keep us balanced, even in the grimmest of times. It reminds us that despite illness and disability, there are moments of real joy in life and we need to embrace them.

When I had skin cancer surgery on my leg, I couldn't walk while I was recovering. Then Michael, who was supposed to be taking his turn as my caregiver, tripped over a curb in a parking lot, fell hard to the pavement and suffered torn ligaments in his ankle, a cracked rib and a sprained wrist. He limped home from the emergency room with a cast on his foot, an Ace bandage on his wrist and a shrug that said, "No idea which of us is taking care of the other at this point."

We laughed, albeit while wincing.

Later that night, thoroughly exhausted, we followed the ritual that began somewhere along the journey that's been our 20-year marriage: We got ourselves into bed, turned off the lights, reached under the covers for each other's hand and held on tightly, fingers intertwined, until we fell asleep.

Jane Heller has written 13 romantic comedy novels, and is the author of You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You: A Caregiver’s Survival Guide to Keeping You in Good Health and Good Spirits (Chronicle, 2012). Learn more from her video on the book.

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