Laughter Might Be the Best Medicine for Seniors

  • Posted: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, June 1, 2012 10:39 a.m.

By Jena Hare, General Manager for the Home Instead Senior Care® office in Salisbury, NC

Q. My 82-year-old mother lives alone after we had to move my 84-year-old father to a care facility because of his dementia. She’s doing fine, but my father becomes agitated often and my mother feels that she must be there all the time to try to calm him. Is there any other way to help him and reduce the strain on all of us?

Ask your father’s doctor about humor therapy, which is as effective as widely used antipsychotic drugs in managing agitation in patients with dementia – and avoids serious drug side effects, according to a new study in Australia.

The first major study of the impact of humor therapy on mood, agitation, behavioral disturbances and social engagement in dementia patients found both short-term and persisting decrease in agitation, according to lead researcher Dr. Lee-Fay Low, a Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales's School of Psychiatry.

The “SMILE” study across 36 Australian care facilities involved the training of a staff member to act as a “Laughter Boss” who worked with a humor practitioner with comedic and improvisation skills. Jean-Paul Bell, the key humor therapist in the SMILE study, has set up the Arts Health Institute to train humor practitioners and care staff. The institute’s core program, Play Up, provides a playful relationship with residents and staff in elder care, focusing particularly on people with dementia.

Between 70 and 80 percent of people suffering from dementia are troubled by agitation, a problem for both patients with the disease and their caregivers.

The SMILE study found a 20 percent reduction in agitation using humor therapy, an improvement comparable with the use of anti-psychotic drugs. In the SMILE study, agitation decreased not only during the 12-week humor therapy program but remained lower at 26-week follow-up. Happiness and positive behaviors rose during the 12 weeks of the program, however, dropped as soon as humor practitioner visits ceased.

Your father might also benefit from additional companionship, which could help reduce the strain on your mother and your family.  CAREGiversSM from the local Home Instead Senior Care®office go wherever they’re needed, including care communities and even hospitals.  CAREGivers are screened, trained, bonded and insured, and they are available 24-7 including holidays to supplement care in facilities and provide respite to families.

For more information about Home Instead Senior Care, contact Jena Hare at 704-636-2010 or go to For more about the study, visit

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