When the Laughter Stops, Bring in the Humanity

July 3, 2024

People often ask me to tell them a specific moment with a senior where Laughter On Call really made a difference. The answer I give is never the one they are expecting. It’s never the image of a woman laughing so hard she fell out of her chair, or a man laughing ‘till a tear slipped out of his eye. It’s actually a story of a woman who was not laughing at all. In fact, quite the opposite. 

We were running one of our Interactive Improv Storytelling classes with about 20 seniors in all stages of cognitive decline. As usual, the players were taking a trip, this time a cruise. Naturally, there were cocktails. We approached each “guest” on the ship with a tray where they were offered two options. When memory is an issue, best not to ask open ended questions like, “What would you like to drink?” Better to limit choices. 

“Would you like champagne or a martini?” I asked the well coiffed woman in her wheelchair, clearly not entranced with the 1920’s gaiety we had established. She looked me squarely in the eyes through thick glasses and yelled, “IT’S TOO LOUD!”

“OH NO!” I responded, mirroring back her horror. Mirroring is a great way to create connection because it communicates to the person that you are paying attention, that you see them. 

“That’s terrible!” I said.

“YES IT IS!” she snapped back. “IT’S TOO LOUD!”

I shouted out to my teammates, “Hey you all, Patsy here says it’s too loud. Can you tell the band leader to tell the band to tone it down?”

“Yes of course!” one of them said. We live in a “yes…and” world. She then engaged the rest of the attendees by asking how to talk to the musicians without offending them. Meanwhile, Patsy and I continued our conversation. I don’t mean to suggest she thanked me. She did not. But I had her attention. I asked her what music she enjoyed, what dessert, and if she’d ever been on a cruise herself. Tony Bennett, frozen vanilla custard, and yes were her answers. I asked her to tell me about the cruise - no pressure, just any images or tastes or smells that came to her. Then I sang a little “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

“Too loud?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “It’s fine.” Faint praise, but by the glint in her eyes I knew she got the callback.

I tell that story when asked not to illustrate that I’m the “senior whisperer,” because I am not. I tell it because despite not making someone laugh ‘till it hurts, we most definitely consider this kind of engagement a success.

Most people will tell you, or me anyway, that laughter is the best medicine and yet laughter is not always what the doctor ordered. Sometimes listening, taking a person in fully, and responding to exactly what you are seeing and hearing is the kindest and most life affirming thing we can do.