Creating Smiles and Laughter (Community story)

Community Story

By Kathy Laurnehue © Dementia Care International

An occupational therapy friend, Kathy Laurenhue  in the US, gave us this delightful idea for creating smiles and laughter by staff and relatives caring for a person with dementia. It’s a small initiative that can make a world of difference for everyone involved in the busy routine of everyday care.

Before introducing this idea, we take a second first to remember that people with dementia “unlearn” in the opposite order to which they learn. This means that what they learnt first in life is going to be unlearnt last. Since the very first thing we learn as babies is to smile and laugh, the very last thing a person with dementia is going to unlearn will be smiling and laughing. So why not make your most important task each day to give those in your care the opportunity to have a good laugh. Not only does laughter spread joy and create a wonderful atmosphere for everyone, it also boosts the happy hormones – endorphins – that, in turn, boost our immune systems. What have you got to lose?

Now, here is Kathy’s delightful idea.

In a colourful bum bag carry small, fun, cute items that move and do unexpected things. An example would be a small rubber frog with gel eyes – when you squeeze its stomach its gel eyes pop out. Unexpected actions such as these are so surprising, and sure winners to elicit not just smiles but also a good laugh. Fun items could include small rubber animals that unroll a long tongue when squeezed; a set of small wind up dentures that hop around on large feet; funny rattles with faces that ‘talk’ when they’re waved in the air; an old time frog that hops unexpectedly and so on.

Other ideas include a set of novelty earrings, a  sparkly necklace or bowtie that blinks or makes a funny noise. If the person with dementia fancies an item, let them wear or enjoy it for the day. They will become the centre of attention and receive many comments; in turn, generating great and positive feelings. These reactions are bound to boost the person’s self-esteem.

The most successful items are usually those that are small and cost very little. Often you can find such items in 2-dollar shops, toyshops, newsagents, service stations and tourist shops. Just start looking and soon you’ll begin to find them everywhere.

The reason for carrying the items in something like a bum bag is so that you’ll always have them handy; to use at anytime on the spur of the moment.

To ensure that this activity is not regarded as childish, here are some important hints:

  1. Only use this idea if you personally enjoy being playful and love people with dementia, respect them as whole human beings and regard it as an honour to work with them.
  2. Introduce the items in such a way to allow you and the other person to come together as two adults in awe of what is available today. For example, you could say, ‘Isn’t it amazing what they make today? I found this little one and I just wanted to share it with you.’  Show the object and allow yourself to laugh while saying something, such as, ‘Isn’t it funny?’ 

Getting your team involved

If you are a manager and you’d like to try this idea, we suggest you give each team member wishing to participate a small amount of money, say $20. Encourage them to use the money to buy a colourful bum bag and a couple of small, fun items. Remember, since this idea might not appeal to everyone, it is just as important to ‘free’ those who don’t like the idea as it is to encourage those who’d love to pursue it.

Limiting the spending amount inspires creativity, and by encouraging each staff member to do their own purchasing it ensures they each have the opportunity to buy exactly what appeals to their particular sense of humour. Then, when they share their fun things with the person who has dementia, their own joy and delight in the item will shine through and the charisma will be contagious.