By Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care
A good laugh. It’s the last thing you might expect when you enter the world of a hospice patient, yet humor is often an important part of the end-of-life journey, just as it is during other times of life.
“Sometimes what people need is a good belly laugh,” said Maria C., our Spiritual Care Coordinator at Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care. “What I’ve found is that people want to tell jokes. They want to smile. They want to tell their stories, especially their funny stories. It gives them joy.”
Obviously, humor is not for every moment or every patient. If a patient is not responsive to laughter and humor at certain times, we must honor that. Of course, inserting humor is not always appropriate. But for many people, humor provides very powerful, emotional connections to our past and our present as well as to those we love and care about.
“A lot of times, people are afraid of going there,” Maria C. reflected. “They think everything needs to be sad and solemn all of the time. And sometimes, it is that. But I’ve found that reliving and retelling happy and funny moments with their friends or me is usually something that people want to do and enjoy doing.”
She recalled one couple who shared some of their home movies with her from the 1970s. The wife was a hospice patient, ill and bedbound. As the husband and wife watched themselves polka dancing, they were laughing, joking, and poking fun at each other: Did we really dress like that? Look at the fashions! Look at that ponytail! Look at how we danced!
“Yes, this was at the end of life. But they were still living and laughing—and that was wonderful,” Maria C. said.
Oftentimes, patients themselves want to lighten the circumstances. One man with a great sense of interior design kept joking about how he was incorporating his oxygen tanks into his living room décor. “Look, they just blend in there; don’t you think?”
Maria C. remembered him poking fun at the bulky cylinders. The tanks didn’t match his palate of colors or his decorating style at all, but they could both laugh at the idea of working them into a home design.
Caring for a loved one during the end of life can be stressful for both the caretakers and the cared for. Not only are there the day-to-day tasks, but often there are many critical decisions that need to be made, and this can lead to differing perspectives. Conflict can sometimes be eased by humor.
The comedian Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Indeed, studies show that humor creates bonds between people, reduces tensions, and lowers stress.
While humor as part of hospice care might seem counter-intuitive, according to one study in American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, laughter and humor can be a key component of hospice palliative care to improve quality of life. Other studies such as those in ScienceDaily and the Journal of Aging Research found that humor brings a humanizing dimension to health care and helps to lessen loneliness. Humor releases endorphins in the brain, which can also help control pain.
As many caretakers and healthcare providers can tell you, laughter or a joke can break the tension during difficult times, especially when treatments and care might challenge a person’s dignity.
“Sometimes things can be embarrassing when you need a level of care and assistance doing things you’ve done for yourself for so long,” Maria C. said. “Some light-hearted humor can offer a moment of grace and understanding. It can let people know they’re not a burden—they’re just human. We will all be there and need some level of care at some point.”
Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, is the President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care of West Bridgewater, a dynamic non-profit hospice serving more than 55 communities south of Boston. OCH also runs the Dr. Ruth McLain Hospice Home in Braintree. A native and resident of the South Shore, Toni brings her compassion and experience as a nurse, veteran, and community leader to her insightful columns for South Shore Senior News. She is also the founder of Sunny Paws Dog Rescue. Several groups have honored her leadership, including the South Shore Women’s Business Network. She currently sits on the board of the Hospice & Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts. For more information, call (781) 341-4145 or visit Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care at www.oldcolonyhospice.org.