Humour is great therapy for dementia

Humour is great therapy for dementia

By Liz Lockhart

Having reported on the importance of laughter in a previous news item it now seems that ‘humour therapy’ is great for people suffering from dementia.

This approach avoids the serious side effects and drug interactions that often exist with antipsychotic medications as it uses humour therapy rather than antipsychotic drugs to manage the agitation that patients with dementia often experience.

This Australian study is the first major study into the impact of humour therapy on agitation, mood, behavioural disturbances and social engagement in dementia patients. 

The study centred on 36 residential care facilities for the elderly and involved the recruitment and training of a member of staff to act as a ‘Laughter Boss’.  According to the lead researcher, Dr. Lee-Fay Low, the participants displayed short-term and persisting decrease in agitation.

The Laughter Boss worked with a humour practitioner who had both comedic and improvisation skills.  This is similar to the use of ‘Clown Doctors’ who are used in hospitals to assist in the recovery and to lift mood in children.

This research programme is called ‘Play Up’ and provides a playful relationship between residents and staff in an aged care environment, focusing on people with dementia.

Up to sixty different conditions are included under the umbrella of dementia.  Many of these conditions cause similar neurodegenerative changes in the brain.  As our life-expectancy grows the number of people who are over 85 years of age also increased with an estimated 22% of this group having dementia.

Between 70 -80% of people with dementia suffer from agitation.  This is a problem for both the patient and for their caregivers.

‘Agitated behaviours include physical and verbal aggression, screaming and repetitive behaviours and questions, and wandering.  This is challenging for staff and often indicates unmet needs and distress in the residents of aged care facilities,’ says Dr. Low.

The study found a 20% reduction in agitation using humour therapy.  This improvement is comparable to the use of antipsychotic drugs.

 ‘This shows humour therapy should be considered before medication for agitation, particularly taking into account its side effects,’ says Low.

Importantly the participants in the study not only displayed decreased agitation during the twelve week humour therapy programme but this remained lower at the 26-weed follow up.

Positive behaviour and happiness rose over the 12 weeks of the programme.  They dropped as soon as the humour practitioner’s visits ceased.

Source: The University of New South Wales 

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