Funny Bone Yoga: Using laughter to bring patients, familiies and caregivers together

The idea: Funny bone yoga is a way of bringing laughter to people with dementia who have difficulties with the subtlties of humour. It also connects people with dementia with caregivers and memory care staff.

My name is Susan Parker. I am a psychotherapist and a peak performance coach. I am also the daughter of a Mother with Azheimer’s disease.

As a therapist, my career has focused on helping individuals, couples or athletes successfully navigate major life transitions: the death of a loved one, recovery from early childhood trauma or recovery from physical injuries which make them reevaluate their future.

As a peak performance coach, my focus is on training athletes and business executives to sharpen their minds and improve their minds to improve their results. None of these skill sets has softened the grief of watching my mother drift away day by day, month by month, year by year. 

My mother has had Alzheimer’s disease for over a decade. Before we needed to find her a safer and more secure place to live outside of her home, one of the events I will never forget is the look on her face when she opened a birthday card I’d given her. She looked bewildered and then sad, not at all what I was expecting. It was a funny, jokey card, the kind my family is famous for…no occasion is so momentous that it cannot be punctuated by jokes and laughter. For the first time Mom did not get the joke…she took what the card said seriously and so was hurt. I was devastated. After that, there were no more funny cards. But later, it made me think about how early in the disease the ability to understand humor begins to fade. As Mom moved into her new community and into the next phases of her disease, her ability to laugh never wavered. She smiled, giggled, and laughed with us, other residents and often with staff. When we could laugh together, the gray numbing grief at losing her day by day faded away. For those brief moments in some strange way, I felt connected to her again as my mom…not the hollow shell that seemed to be living in another dimension so much of the time. 

Funny Bone Yoga is a program I developed to bring together staff, residents and families in a fun, light hearted and playful way. It grew out of an idea I had to ease the stress of people with Alzheimer’s disease and those who cared for them. While it draws heavily from the Laughter Yoga developed by Madan Kataria, Funny Bone Yoga (as do all Laugh and Refocus Programs) also blends other techniques to adapt to the specific needs of Memory Care Communities.

Humor requires the ability to understand subtle concepts and changes in voice tone and inflection. People with Alzheimer’s disease cannot do this. Laughter as exercise goes beyond this. Laughter does not need humor. It does not need cognition. Thus it benefits those who no longer can understand a joke. Laughter brings people together and Funny Bone Yoga gives families a way to reconnect by having fun together. During a difficult time, it can create happy memories for multiple family generations since family members of all ages can participate. It also re-energizes staff while it minimizes the stress residents in Memory Care and their families experience as they adjust to a new and often difficult phase of life.

Here is some feedback from caregivers:

It was a nice way to connect with my grandma. Sometimes it is hard to connect by conversing so having an alternative is great. I was also a nice way to meet other residents and their families." 
Jina Taub, Edmonds, WA

"I thought it was strange at first, but after I saw how everyone reacted to it (Funny Bone Yoga) I was amazed that people with dementia could communicate in those different ways. It made everyone smile and interact in completely different ways."
Keith Miller, Seattle, WA


Published on 23 March 2012
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