Alzheimer's blog

Alzheimer's support group gets lift from humor, sharing

By Angela Lunde May 14, 2013

Last week I was invited to gather with a group of individuals living with Alzheimer's and their support partners.

The group has been meeting regularly for more than a year. I was there to listen, offer perspective and guidance.

Each time I participate in a support group as a guest or a facilitator, I become aware of the group's vibe and dynamics. Every group is unique. What I felt immediately in this group from central Minnesota was light-heartedness and connection.

I've always been a strong proponent of finding a support group. I know sometimes finding one that feels right can be difficult, and it can take some time for an individual to feel comfortable and a group to bond. But sharing our stories is vital — they give witness to the truth of our lives, embrace our identity and invite in the strength that comes with community.

Sharing with one another is exactly what this group did for an hour or so on a cold and rainy day last week. Their conversation organically drifted from guilt and ambiguous loss, to the denial of close friends and family, to thoughts on acceptance and forgiveness.

No one pretended that everything was OK when it wasn't. They didn't try to solve each other's problems or dismiss one another's pain. Instead, they stayed present with each other and sat alongside the discomfort that arose. They were willing to let their true selves be seen.

Yet, the group's most powerful connector may have been humor. From time to time they would seamlessly shift into a playful frame of mind, making space for a bit of emotional release. It was clear that humor did not negate the challenges they faced; it was not a way to escape. Instead, humor seemed to ease the hold of the negative emotions and most importantly it strengthened the connection amongst the group.

I see humor as one of the key ingredients to cultivating resilience in life. We laugh most often when we're with other people. Studies show that laughter boosts the immune system and triggers the release of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals in the brain. It's no secret that sharing laughs makes us feel better and helps us bond.

Finding the humor is wonderfully depicted in Debbie Hoffmann's Oscar nominated documentary, "Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter" (l995). The film portrays Debbie's experience caring for her mother with Alzheimer's and remains one of my all-time favorites. It takes a personal story about the relationship between mother and daughter and coming to terms with advancing disease, and infuses it with insight and humor.

At the end of the documentary, Debbie concludes by saying, "We have very few coherent conversations anymore, but she loves to talk. I don't know what she's talking about, but she's having a great time. She laughs, I laugh. She's really doing fine."

I loved my morning with this beautiful little support group. We laughed with one another, exchanged smiles, connected and had fun. My only regret, said one woman, "I didn't find you all soon enough."

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May 14, 2013