The Therapeutic Value of Humor
by Myrtle Klauer, ADC, CAP
Activity professionals know from experience that humor can be
beneficial for residents living in long term care settings. These
individuals observe first-hand how sharing a joke or humorous aside, leads to a smile
on residents’ faces and a more positive attitude. Activity professionals are finding new
ways to directly utilize humor to promote the residents' physical and emotional well-
Humor is a universal human experience. Research has shown that well-adjusted
adults have a high appreciation for humor and are able to use it as a coping tool. Those
who live long and healthy lives often attribute their longevity to maintaining a keen
sense of humor. As Kathleen Fox Tennant, Assistant Professor of Nursing at Ohio
University explains, "The ability to see humor in oneself in life’s situations is one of the
most valuable health asset an individual can have."
The book Anatomy of an Illness, by Norman Cousins, has popularized the use of humor
as a therapeutic tool. In his work, he described the pain he suffered from a rare form of
arthritis. While his doctors offered little help in relieving his symptoms, he decided to
heal himself through large doses of vitamin C and humor. He found that when he
watched Marx Brothers films and Candid Camera episodes, he required less pain
medication and was able to sleep better. Eventually, his arthritic condition subsided. He
attributed his recovery, in part, to the positive frame of mind brought bout by his
therapeutic use of humor.
This groundbreaking work has since led to more extensive research on the therapeutic
benefits of humor. Many facilities have incorporated these creative ideas into its activity
programs to improve the success level and bring smiles to the residents' faces.
Humor is an essential ingredient in an individual's psychological well-being. Research
has shown how humor can be used as an effective coping mechanism. Humor can
enable individuals to face their fears and see the brighter side of things by looking at a
situation's comical elements. Humor enables a person to look at a problem from a
different point of view, thereby making the problem appear less serious. By turning the
situation around and looking for the humor in it, one realizes there are opportunities for
increased objectivity and insight in almost every situation.
Studies reveal that humor is an effective way to relieve stress. Laughter leads to a
cathartic release of emotion. It can help to release pent-up feelings of anger and
frustration in a socially acceptable way. A good “belly laugh” is often followed by a state
of relaxation accompanied by a feeling of reduced tension.
Humor brings about a happier, more positive, and optimistic mood. Humor can help an
individual find pleasure in everyday activities, increase his or her self-confidence,
improve the individual’s self-image, and provide the ability to handle life's challenges.
Humor is often a shared human experience. By enjoying a laugh together, people feel a
sense of commonality and bonding, which often leads to increased social interaction
In a three-month study of the use of humor in a nursing home, residents participated in
several humor activities. At the end of the study, researchers discovered that the
residents had a more optimistic attitude, socialized more with each other, were more
mentally alert, and became more involved in the life of the facility. The use of humor
helped improve the residents’ outlook and self-esteem.
Laughter is not just a mood elevator – humor is good medicine, too. Research in the
last half of the 20th Century has shown that humor has many physiological benefits.
Laughter causes muscles in the face, neck, shoulders, and abdomen to be activated.
Because so many residents living in long term care settings are in need of physical
activity, particularly those in wheelchairs or confined to bed, laughter can provide
excellent muscle stimulation.
Laughter also provides beneficial cardiac and circulatory effects. After laughing, a
person's heart rate and blood pressure drop. This type of stimulation may help lower
the risks of heart attacks. Laughter also improves a person's blood circulation and the
movement of oxygen throughout the body. This increased circulation may play a role in
making the body's immune system more effective and prevent the formation of blood
Laughter releases endorphins in the body. Endorphins are a natural body chemical,
which create a feeling of pleasure and produce a pain-relieving effect very similar to
morphine. There have been several studies involving residents living in long term care
settings that validate the use of humor as a pain-relieving intervention. After
participating in a humor group for six weeks the nursing staff was able to show that
residents made fewer requests for pain medication. Indeed, humor is one of the best
measures that activity professionals can use to bring comfort to residents who are
Staff Attitudes and the Facility Environment
Nursing facilities are the home of individuals with many physical, mental, and
emotional challenges. Often the caregivers and community-at-large sees the nursing
home as a place for the serious treatment of physical, mental, and emotional
disabilities. Caregivers often assume a serious persona when they are around the
residents, and are afraid to reveal a more humorous and personal side of themselves.
The caregivers may link laughter with frivolity and childishness; therefore, they may have
an underlying fear that the use of humor undermines their image of professionalism.
Staff can use humor to their advantage in both improving the residents' quality of life
and in maintaining the integrity of the facility. Sharing humor with a resident is a tangible
sign of respect and caring. This affirmation often leads to the resident feeling more
comfortable with the caregiver and being more cooperative with his or her requests.
The use of humor by the staff helps the nursing home assume a more humanistic
environment - one of compassion, dignity, and respect.
Residents often view their caregivers as a model for their own behavior. When a
caregiver can see and communicate the humor in everyday situations, the residents will
be better able to appreciate the humor, too. Therefore, the success of a therapeutic
humor program begins with the attitudes of the staff and the acceptance of humor as an
integral part of the facility’s environment.
Utilizing Humor in Activity Programs
Humor can be found in many activities of one’s daily life. Individuals can find humor in
his or her favorite newspaper cartoons, jokes initiated by his or her peers, and in the
unusual behaviors of others. Memories and stories are often an excellent source of
humor. There are times when something as simple as “poking fun” at a strange color
combination of flowers in a table centerpiece or hearing an unusual sound can elicit a
By developing and implementing a humor program, the activity professional can help
residents find the humor in everyday situations. The activity professional does not have
to be able to tell jokes or funny stories to have a successful humor program. He or she
can simply act as the facilitator, providing activities that elicit a humorous and
As activity professionals, we should always be on the lookout for humorous materials
and situations that can be incorporated into the activity program. It’s important to find
what a resident considers to be funny. Humor-related questions can, and should, be
included on the activity assessment. Careful attention to daily conversations and
activities can also help in discovering a resident's humor preferences.
Humor is one the "abilities" that remain for many residents with Alzheimer's disease
and related dementias. Even in the middle stages of the disease process, many
residents still respond to activities that incorporate spontaneity, frivolity, and laughter.
Humor is a key ingredient in providing a successful program of "ability-centered"
The following is a list of ideas that the activity professional can include in the creation of
the humor program. Remember, there are many ways to incorporate humor into the
daily activity program. The key to success is remaining open-minded, flexible, and
• Humor Bulletin Board - The activity professionals and residents can create a
bulletin board featuring cartoons, jokes, pictures, and other “funny” materials.
Residents should be encouraged to continually supply new materials to help update
• Humor Corner – Dedicate a comer of the activity room or recreational area on each
floor/unit to humor. The activity professionals should continually provide materials, e.g.,
funny jokes; photos; newspaper articles; video and audio tapes; music; DVDs of
cartoons or other comical materials; and other resources the residents enjoy.
• Joke Swap – Encourage the residents to write down his or her favorite joke(s) and
exchange the jokes with others. Jokes can also be collected and placed in a “joke file”
for use when needed. Provide books of jokes for the residents to borrow and read.
(Enlist the assistance of volunteers to transcribe jokes you’ve collected and place the
pages into three-ring binders.) Develop a “humor club” for the residents who enjoy
sharing a laugh with others.
• Humor Photos – Use the pictures of residents and staff in group activities to make
a humor photo album. Photos from newspapers and magazines also work well for this.
Glue the pictures onto brightly colored construction paper, punch holes, and place in
three-ring binders. Encourage the residents to create comical captions for each picture
in the binders. Place the finished photo binders around the facility for others to enjoy.
• Movies, Television, and Radio Programs - Residents often enjoy comical movies
or episodes of humorous television programs. Make it a point to show movies featuring
Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and other comedians. Showing episodes of I Love
Lucy, The Jack Benny Show, Burns and Allen, etc. work well. Consider adding videos of
sports bloopers for the men and shows like America's Funniest Home Videos to your
list. Old-time radio shows like Amos and Andy; Fibber McGee and Molly; The Red
Skeleton Show; etc. can also be a big hit with the residents.
• Story Writing and Reminiscence – Invite a group of residents to write down
humorous stories from their lives, e.g., worst date, first driving lesson, funniest thing
their children did, most embarrassing moment, or the funniest person they knew.
Encourage the residents to create original, humorous stories based upon a picture or
topic and share these tales with others in the group or at a larger social gathering.
Remember: Volunteers can be a big help with these writing projects.
• Funny Entertainers – Add performances by amateur comedians, clowns,
storytellers, and musicians to your activity program. These types of programs infuse the
facility with laughter. These performers are often willing to volunteer their services free
of charge or at little cost to the facility. Consider inviting students from local high
schools or community colleges who are taking classes in speech, theater, and the
performing arts to perform humorous skits or monologs for the residents.
• Humorous Art - Residents may enjoy creating artwork with a humorous theme.
Suggest a topic and encourage the residents to draw amusing pictures related to the
topic. For a good laugh, have the residents explain someone else’s picture to the rest of
• Comedy Videos - Videotape the residents sharing their favorite jokes and/or
stories. Have the resident preview his or her videotape(s). With the residents’
permission, play the videos at a social gathering. Consider videotaping the residents
making funny hats for an intergenerational activity or wearing whimsical outfits for a
special event. Incorporate snippets of comical moments from past activities into a video
format for the residents’ viewing pleasure.
• Humorous Props – Incorporate the use of a variety of humorous props in specific
activities. Funny hats, silly glasses, clown noses, costumes, and other props can elicit
laughter and create a fun activity experience.
• Improvisation and Comedy – Encourage the residents, volunteers, and staff to
improvise humorous situations based on ideas suggested by an audience of peers. An
impersonation contest can be an entertaining experience, as the residents pretend to
be famous personalities, e.g., John Wayne, President Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, etc. The
residents may also enjoy writing a funny script and acting it out in front of an audience.
This would provide a chance for even more residents to enjoy a humorous experience.
• Joke and Punch Line - Gather the residents into a large circle and distribute index
cards to each participant, with instructions not to share the information on his or her
card until everyone has one. The leader explains that the index cards contain either a
joke or the punch line to a joke. The object is for the residents to find the individual who
has the other part of his or her joke or punch line. After everyone has found his or her
"other half" the group takes turns telling the joke the pair created.
• Bad Joke Day - Encourage everyone to share a bad joke at the beginning of each
activity. Many such jokes are a "play on words" such as:
What did God say to the man on the moon? Kneel Armstrong. (a.k.a. Neil
What did the mother buffalo say to her son as he left for school? Bison!
Why was Cinderella always so lousy at baseball? She had a pumpkin for a coach
and was always running from the ball!
The internet is a great source for these types of jokes. For some of the best "bad jokes,"
visit: http://www.angelfire.com/fl/JackCraig/HUMOR-REALLYBADJOKES.html, http://
www.2havefun.com/Comedy/bad-day.shtml, and http://www.funny2.com/jokes.htm.
• Add Spontaneity to Your Activity Program - Plan to do something funny and
unexpected during your regular activity programs. For instance, spice up movie night by
showing the film Singing in the Rain. Instruct the residents to bring umbrellas to the
activity. Be sure to provide umbrellas for those who do not bring one. During the movie,
use squirt guns to create "rain" on the residents' umbrellas. Note: Be sure to notify
housekeeping prior to the beginning of this activity. Place “Wet Floor” signs within easy
access. If the floor gets wet, post the “Wet Floor” signs and wipe up the "puddles"
before the residents leave the area.
• Telling a Group Story - Group stories can become very funny as each person adds
something to the story. Gathers the participants into a large circle. The activity
professional (or leader) holds a bean bag and begins the story - "I'm going on vacation
and was packing my suitcase when all of a sudden..." The leader tosses the beanbag
to someone who picks up the story - "...a huge dog came out of the bushes growling
and running towards me. I jumped into the trunk just as the dog..." the participant
tosses the beanbag to someone else. The story continues until everyone has had a
turn and the leader brings the story to a close.
• Charades - Charades can evoke an abundance of laughter as the participants act
out the movie title, famous person’s name, holiday, etc. written on the slip of paper he
or she draws from the container. The individual’s gestures, facial expressions, and
excitement can be very funny as the person tries to draw out each word from the
• Funny Fashion Show - Use your imagination to create a line of fashion that's "over
the top." Recruit residents, staff, and volunteers to be your models. Work with the
residents to create the script and description of the “fashions” being worn. The narrator
should try to keep a "straight face" as each outfit is announced. Here is an example of
an ensemble you may like to include in your fashion show: Evening Wear ~ The model
walks down the runway wearing a long flannel nightgown and short terry bathrobe. She
has a mudpack on her face, rollers in her hair, cotton between her freshly polished
toes, etc. The funnier the combination, the more laughter you'll evoke.
The use of humor as a therapeutic tool can work wonders in improving the residents'
physical health and emotional well-being. Caregivers should recognize its healing
properties and devise creative ways to integrate humor throughout the residents' day.
Humor offers an innovative approach for creating exciting, ingenious, and unforgettable
activity programs, which can enhance the residents' quality of life and outlook for the
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