The most harrowing plane ride I’ve ever had was a trip from the East coast to the West coast last year. At one point I found myself kneeling on the floor in front of my mother looking deep in to her eyes telling her I loved her. It wasn’t turbulence that landed me at my mother’s feet, it was an urgent need to calm her, because this wasn’t just any cross country trip. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years before and my sister and I had finally made the decision to move her from New York City to Los Angeles where I lived with my family.
My mother adjusted to life in California better than anyone expected. Silverado, a residence whose sole purpose is caring for seniors with Alzheimer’s, (unlike other places I visited with an always whispered “memory care unit,”) is bright and clean and always welcoming. But then about ten months in, her demeanor changed. I’d show up and find her sitting away from the group, withdrawn, head dropping, fighting an overwhelming urge to sleep. When we spoke, she rarely looked at me, and she had lost interest in food, one of her great passions. (Related: My Mother’s Roommate: Alzheimer’s)
“She’s so unhappy,” I cried to, of all people, my dentist at my next visit. Dr. Mestman loves to engage in all manner of therapeutic conversations when I see her, a clever ploy at getting me to focus on emotional pain rather than the stabbing of my gums.
“Maybe she needs a companion,” she said, stuffing my mouth with cotton.
I knew there were caregiver services I could call that would send serviceable companions to sit with her, but I didn’t want just serviceable. As a former comic, I wanted someone like the people I had turned to in all the crises of my life. Someone who could make my mother laugh.
I wanted a comedian.
“If u know someone funny interested in geriatrics & looking for part-time work, LMK,” I posted on a few social media sites. The phone rang.
“My friend Sue just called me,” my native New Yorker friend said instead of hello. “She’s a comic, she wants to work with seniors in LA. Call her.”
So I did. I was greeted by one of those rare voices, equal parts warmth and no-nonsense.
“I can visit with your mom,” Sue said. “I love old people. I sat on a bench with a guy I met on the street for like an hour yesterday. That’s when I thought, I want to do this. I should do this.”
Comedians are trained to be completely in the moment, to connect with people and draw them out, and after years of dealing with hecklers, they are not daunted by the potential volatility of a person with Alzheimer’s.
We arranged a date for her to meet my mother.
“Mom, this is my friend Sue,” I said, walking up to her and moving her wheelchair away from the table and to a couch so Sue and I could sit by her.
“What’s up, Muriel?” Sue asked. My mother looked in to the distance. Sue moved to make eye contact with her. My mother looked away.
“You don’t want to talk do you?” Nothing.
“Some days I don’t want to talk either,” Sue said, “when someone gets in my face I think, ‘Schmuck, do I look like I want to talk?’”
My mother’s head turned toward Sue. She was smiling.
Sue repeated the laugh line, this time with more energy.
“Schmuck, do I look like I want to talk?”
Then my mother laughed and blurted, “Schmuck!” like a kid getting away with something. She waited for Sue’s reaction, which was a genuinely hearty laugh. And then, like any comedian, Sue topped her,
“Hey, Schmuck! Do I look like I want to talk?”she asked, in a voice right out of “The Jersey Shore.”
“Schmuck!” my mother yelled back, nearly choking with laughter. I started to get a little self-conscious by this schmuck-off, maybe my mother’s neighbors wouldn’t be so enamored of this exchange. Except the two of them were having such a good time, how could I interrupt?
This is genius I thought. Who better than a comedian to bring in to the Alzheimer’s care mix? They’re trained to be completely in the moment, to connect with people and draw them out, and after years of dealing with hecklers, are not daunted by the potential volatility of a person with Alzheimer’s. (Related: Dementia Care: Who Should Be On Your Team.)
That first encounter was six months ago. Since then Sue has worked with my mother for 10 hours a week. Although she can’t tell you herself, “This comedian visits me and it’s changed my life,” I, and everyone who interacts with her, can tell you it most definitely has. My mother is laughs all the time, is more engaged with the community, and is eating with gusto. She’s even started singing. Another family at the residence witnessed these changes and wanted a comic of their own, so I found one. And then I started a new business, Laughter On Call (coming to a senior near you) .
My suspicion has been confirmed that when the mind can no longer be relied upon for rational expression, or access to memories, or use of language, all we have is right now, this moment. I can’t think of a better way to fill it than with laughter.
Dani Klein Modisett is a comedian and author of Take My Spouse, Please (Shambhala Press) about the importance of laughter in long-term marriage. Her first book, Afterbirth…Stories You Won’t Read in Parents Magazine, (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), was based on a live show she created. She has written for the LA Times, NYTimes.com, Parents Magazine, LA Parent, and The Huffington Post. She recently started Laughter On Call, a business pairing comedians with seniors, and trains healthcare workers how to laugh more in their day.