Making fun of older people is a form of “ism.” Racism, sexism, classism, ageism. Jokes about incontinence and adult diapers abound. Geezers or crocks or coots or hags have been common labels of degradation. We make fun of what we fear most.
When I talk about “finding the humor” in the aging experience, I’m not talking about laughing at anybody; rather, laughing WITH older people and at ourselves. Creating occasions to laugh is essential to successful aging. We are all familiar with the importance of grief recovery groups, yet too little attention is paid to laughter opportunities, even with people who are ill and/or cognitively impaired. But we have to look for them.
I’ve gathered countless stories in my book Hallowed Ground, Stories of Successful Aging. Here are some I hope will inspire you to find the humor in aging.
I was once asked to be on a panel about humor and aging at my association’s annual meeting. One panelist was a psychotherapist, whose name I don’t recall, so I’ll call him Dr. Freud, whom he resembled.
Dr. Freud recounted the story of a suicidal older man who had lost his wife and was living with family. The man’s mood had brightened but Dr. Freud cautioned the family that sometimes, suicidal people have elevated moods just before they kill themselves, due to having made that decision. Older men who have lost spouse and career are particularly susceptible.
The man’s family felt comfortable leaving him alone one weekend because they thought he was “better.” Then, late that Saturday night, Dr. Freud’s patient called, laughing uproariously. The old man explained, “Doc, I decided to kill myself tonight. I filled the tub with hot water. I had a razor on the edge of it. I stepped into the tub and was about to sit down and slit my wrist, when I had an urge to take a shit. So, I got out of the tub, sat on the commode, and began to do my business when it struck me: I’ve interrupted my own suicide to take a shit! Isn’t that funny? I must want to live after all.” And live he did. Dr. Freud went on to extol the therapeutic virtue of humor and laughter as we age.
Our organization received a block of tickets to a Braves game. The staff decided to invite independent living residents, along with dementia residents, with staff and volunteers in tow.
The beer vendor came down the aisle hocking cold Buds, whereupon one man not with our group raised his hand and passed his money down the row of our people to the vendor, who poured the Budweiser and began to pass it back down the row to the young man. The beer got as far as an Alzheimer’s resident, who received it from the person on his right. He stared at it, then took a couple of sips. He passed it to his left, whereupon another Alzheimer’s resident repeated the ritual, took a couple of sips, and passed it on.
Our staff was not quite sure how to intervene, but before they could, the young man looked down the row and declared, “That’s OK, everybody have a sip and pass it on down!” Which they did. He received half a beer but gold stars for his good spirit. He ordered his next beer from the other aisle! Laughter all around.
The late Dr. L. Bevel Jones, “Bev,” was a retired United Methodist Bishop. He was a great pulpiteer, using his secret sauce of humor to make the deepest of points. As they aged, Bev and Tuck had complex health problems. Bev called to report that Tuck had been in the hospital but was home. Then he said, “Larry, I was helping Tuck go to the toilet, and I kneeled down on the floor in front of her as she shuffled her way to sit on the commode. I looked up at her as I began to pull down her underpants, and I said, “Ya know, Tuck, I remember this experience being more erotic than this!” They found the humor.
My favorite humor story involves two colleagues at Emory: Dr. Jim Fowler and Dr. Mort Silberman. My Hallowed Ground moment with them came at an Emory VIP luncheon. Jim’s mother had Alzheimer’s and had lived at Budd Terrace for 20 years; Mort’s mother had been recently diagnosed with dementia and moved to Budd Terrace.
As we sat for lunch, Mort launched into the frustrations of his mother’s situation. Jim listened, then responded, “Mort, I’ve been where you are. It’s a very frustrating disease. So, I learned that finding the humor in the situation has been my salvation. I’ll give you a recent example. My mother had always been a mild-mannered Quaker lady, and now she can cuss like a sailor.
“I invited her to the Emory holiday concert at the Canon Chapel. I thought the music and drama of the concert would appeal to her. It featured Bach and involved recitation of the scriptures from Luke about the procession of the three Magi. The music played, then stopped. A faculty member in costume recited scripture, followed by more music. Then the second Magi walked down the aisle and repeated the actions.
“The third Magi processed. The music stopped and the Magi’s recitation was a question, not a statement, ‘Can this be the Christ child the world has awaited?’ Whereupon my little Quaker mother asserted to those assembled, ‘Well, of course it is! Any dumb son-of-a-bitch knows that!’” Mort’s demeanor went from anger to laughter. Jim had found the humor and helped Mort find it as well.
All these situations could be cause for tears: tragedy emanates from them. Yet, as one family member told me, “If I couldn’t laugh about it, I’d cry all the time.” I believe that finding the humor is an important factor in successful aging. The stories involved, like those above, can have lasting, often multi-generational, impact.