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Next Avenue: Why Laughter Matters for Caregivers

Posted on 21 Nov 2012

NextAvenue: Why Laughter Is Crucial for Caregivers While I’ve never been a primary caregiver (for anyone besides myself), I remember watching my family care for my great grandparents as a little girl and – although our brush with the disease was fortunately brief – seeing Daddy take care of Mama when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. We can all appreciate, even if we can’t truly understand, the strain and stress being a caregiver entails. And the truth is, everyone dealing with such heavy burdens could really benefit from a good, long laugh.

When you’re caring for a loved one, stress, depression, exhaustion and anxiety often tag along for the ride. In addition to seeing a friend or family member struggle, the seemingly unending responsibilities and decisions can weigh you down. And if we don’t pay attention to those negative feelings, they can do more damage over time than we might realize.

In a PBS NextAvenue article discussing the same topic, Dr. Rosemary Laird, medical director of the Health First Aging Institute in Melbourne Fla., had this to say:

“Caregiver stress is prevalent, but often the risk is invisible,” said Laird. “Because we can’t see stress, we ignore it. But the impact to the immune system can be significant, causing caregivers to become as ill as the person they are caring for.”

The effects of that stress in addition to creating “snappy-ness” (as our family referred to it) and immune system weaknesses can stretch even further, especially when other stresses are added to the mix. Although I didn’t appreciate the problems at the time, when my great grandfather was battling cancer and my grandfather was managing his care, it took a serious toll on my grandfather’s health. In addition to genetic predisposition for cardiovascular disease and Pepa’s illness, my grandfather was a cattle farmer dealing with significant changes in small business insurance coverage. Heart problems quickly surfaced … and worsened, despite traditional medical treatment measure Pa followed to the letter.

Today, in addition to tradition treatment methods, many physicians and advocates like Goldie Hawn, say that humor therapy can reduce stress and improve everyone’s health. Complementary medicine – like massage therapy, aromatherapy and humore therapy – used to be seen as fringe approaches outside medical advice. But, fortunately, things are changing. These treatment methods are backed with credible research and encourage us to take a more holistic look at our health!

In a recent study, psychoimmunologist Lee Berk of Loma Linda University Medical Center in California has found that laughter increased the production and activation of antibodies and “killer” cells that attack viruses and tumors in our bodies. The helpful little guys’ production is slowed when the body suffered consistent, long-term stress.

Another reason a laugh a day matters? A study has found that 20 seconds of laughter benefits our lung function as much as spending three minutes on a rowing machine. Imagine what happens when you watch a comedy at the gym!

If that wasn’t enough of a technical reason to convince you, check out this list: other proven health benefits of laughing include the relief of stress and its by products – such as inflammation and the chronic conditions that stim from it; lowever “bad” cholesterol and elevated “good” cholesterol; increased eleasticity of blood vessels; higher oxygen levels in the blood; improved cardiovascular function; and decreased pain, particularly in people going through chemo. An additional plus? (Hint: you already know this one.) Humor helps us make friends and feel better about ourselves. Meanwhile, isolation and the health problems it can fuel are common health concerns for both caregivers and the loved ones they’re caring for.

So, besides popping a few Marx Brothers videos in, what can we do to add humor therapy to our lives? There are, believe it or not, a lot of options out there, from laughter yoga to “positivity education.” Through the Hawn Foundation, actress and advocate Goldie Hawn even promotes MindUP, a program for caregivers and people of all ages who are facing stress.

Am I convinced that laughing more will solve my health issues or that it could have improved my grandfather’s health (he was always a bit of prankster to start with)? Well, maybe not fully. But this is one form of therapy I wouldn’t mind trying. If it doesn’t lengthen life, humor therapy could certainly make it more enjoyable. And isn’t that more important anyway?

To learn more about Humor Therapy, check out the original Next Avenue article here. And work a few more giggles into your day! If you’re stumped for ideas, here are a few tips from Karyn Buxman, a registered nurse, self-styled neuro-humorist and author:

1. Subscribe to an email or online “joke of the day” so you can start your morning with a laugh.
2. Have coffee or lunch at least once a month with your funniest friend.
3. Read humorous books or joke books.
4. Check out the funny videos on YouTube – baby and animals’ silly antics are a safe bet. Or you can always watch PSY, a Korean pop sensation, dance to “Gangnam Style.” It’s thoroughly hilarious and makes you feel better about your own stale dance moves (at least, that's how we felt)!  

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