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There’s room for embracing humor and joy to the end of life

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Press on March 31, 2019

By Tom Rademacher

Is there room for laughter and humor as part of the care offered by hospice?

In many cases, yes, said Sister Maria Faustina, a spiritual caregiver for Emmanuel Hospice in Grand Rapids.

“Humor and joy should be considered a part of everyone’s life, even if you’re in hospice,” she said. “And because none of us know how much time we have, we should consider seeking joy and laughter whenever we can.

“It doesn’t usually happen early in the hospice process. It sometimes doesn’t happen at all. But when it does, embracing that joy can give patients some respite and help them to cope.”

The effects of humor are well known, beginning with research from more than a half-century ago, when scientists and others experimented with its psychological and physiological effects on the human body.

In an anecdotal study from the 1960s, journalist Norman Cousins treated a rheumatic disorder by viewing episodes of “Laurel & Hardy,” “Candid Camera” and the Marx Brothers. The result was an ability to sleep for long periods without pain. Subsequent studies in clinical settings determined that humor sparked positive effects on the central nervous system, improved one’s mood, propped up the immune system and moderated stress hormones.

That’s not to say caregivers like Faustina, a native of Malaysia, come bearing slapstick comedy for their patients. But they’re gently seeking opportunities to smile, laugh and find humor in moments both past and present.

“I have one gentleman who is often very quiet,” she said. “So, I sometimes cut out one of the comics, and show it to him, and he’ll start to laugh. It’s how we connect. When he starts to laugh and happens to be in the dining area, it sometimes causes others to laugh, as well.”

Indeed, humans have connected over whimsy since the dawn of time.

“I like to see people smiling when they can,” she said. “I want to share the joy I have with people, to create a joyful environment whenever possible. In that joyfulness, we’re celebrating the presence of Jesus.”

Cultivating such sessions doesn’t always come early or easily.

“It depends on the situation,” Faustina said. “It’s usually after I’ve come to know them, when trust and confidence can surface. So it can take time.”

Employing humor in health care settings isn’t part of a traditional curriculum for caregivers, but organizations such as the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor — founded in 1978 by a nurse in Illinois — are helping humor fit in as a valid tool. The AATH is a clearinghouse for information on humor as a therapeutic tool, and sponsors publications, seminars and an annual conference. Its members abide by the philosophy of acknowledging how laughter and humor are essential parts of emotional health and wellbeing.

For caregivers such as Faustina, joy and humor often emanate from sitting beside patients and reviewing their life stories.

“Everyone has a past, and in those pasts are joyful moments,” she said. “I recently sat with a woman who was looking back on how she had met her husband. It was a very happy moment, and it brought her joy. It made her smile. And in her eyes, I could see it as though it was happening all over again.”