In the United States, there is a movement called “positive aging”. Distinguished psychologists, Kenneth and Mary Gergen write a wonderful newsletter that promotes ideas and programs related to thinking about old age as a time for growth and new opportunities. Although to a large degree, U.S. culture and financial priorities still support the segregation of elders into assisted living and senior housing communities, the trend, accelerated by an aging baby boomer generation, is towards more integrated aging –“aging in place”. There is a substantial “naturally occurring retirement community” movement in the United States that works to create communities of support for elders within their own homes and neighborhoods. The most progressive of these include people of all ages and work towards building networks of support and caring across all levels of need and ability. Through age inclusion and by bringing together schools, business, medical , and other resources and services these communities are birthing new models for sustainable, health promoting, and soul nourishing living. Neighbors are more willing to offer help, knowing there is back-up beyond what they can do alone. They start to reconnect and to live more collaboratively in ways that have all but been lost in modern day U.S. society.
Such new models for community living speak to and enhance our strengths, helping us to overcome challenges we must face, both individually and collectively. They are born of and continue to ask us to think “outside the box”, to re-envision what we consider to be “social problems” as a call for something better; to become more civilized –to play with ideas for more creative, compassionate and life affirming ways of living together. I can’t help but see parallels with Dr. Kataria’s Laughter Yoga Universities and plans for building intentional communities around them. The play that Laughter Yoga inspires stokes the fires of creative thinking and enhances our capacity to communicate more effectively and work synergistically. So much more is possible, beyond individual health improvement, when we choose to laugh together.
As much as we all want to grow into old age with robust health and vitality, it is not always possible. Many elders are challenged by illness and incapacity. Some of these illnesses compromise physical and mental functioning. When increased levels of anxiety and depression accompany these illnesses, their debilitating impact may be compounded. Through years of building, witnessing and participating in creative programs with astoundingly, resilient elders and family caregivers, I have learned that even in the midst of devastating illness and enormous stresses, our humanity and spirit need not succumb to illness – that even as disease may erode our cognitive and physical abilities, our capacity to love, to create bonds of friendship and to live life with dignity is possible. Laughter Yoga, as many LY professionals here can attest to, can play an important supporting role towards ensuring that goal. Spirits soar when people feel empowered and are offered ways to engage in shared experiences of vitality building exercises that reduce pain and awaken joy.
For people with dementia, LY provides opportunities for reducing isolation, increasing cognitive and social engagement and soothing agitation, while also posing some challenges for implementation. Often, I have found the need to simplify and concretize the exercises and to slow the pace considerably. I have found it very important to educate and involve staff when working with elders residing in nursing homes and other care facilities. For these elders, I think it is important to consider the matter of choice and its relationship to personal integrity and dignity. When people in the community come to LY, it is a choice they make freely and so there is already a degree of openness to participate, a willingness to appear “childlike” in the presence of others. In nursing facilities, elders, especially those with dementia, may be brought to LY without much choice or understanding about what the activity involves. This makes it even more important to proceed gently and to take time to cultivate trust.
As dementia/Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the capacity to organize thoughts and process abstract language is compromised and eventually lost. Elders in the mid to later stages of Alzheimer’s may struggle with understanding the concepts related to some of the laughter yoga exercises such as milkshake laughter or flower garden breathing techniques. Sometimes, with these elders I will spend time with gentle breathing and singing and laughing out exhalations rather than with typical LY exercises. On the other hand, it is important to continue ways to challenge these elders’ cognitive abilities without, unintentionally adding stress. Research shows that ongoing social and cognitive stimulation and engagement can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, support independence in performing activities of daily living and improve quality of life. These factors can make the difference between being able to continue living at home and nursing home placement. And it is here where attention to family caregivers is important. Laughter Yoga can directly impact quality of life for the caregiver(s) of frail elders as well. I will write more about that soon.