I began my career at FAIRHOPE Hospice and Palliative Care, Inc. as a patient care volunteer in January of 1997. During that time, my appreciation of life has been greatly deepened by my interaction with the patients, and especially their families. Naturally, I thought that my patients would teach me the importance of living every day to the fullest, the importance of helping others, etc. etc.

Probably the one thing that I didn’t expect was how they taught me the importance of humor in the hospice setting. They taught me that humor helps. Growing up, my family had always used humor, but I did not expect to use it that much as a patient care volunteer.

My introduction to the use of humor with a patient was my second assignment. This not only removed any doubts that I had about becoming a FAIRHOPE Hospice volunteer but he also vividly showed me the importance of humor, and laughter, in the last stage of life.

My first patient had died before I met him, so actually this patient would be my initiation as a patient care volunteer. This man (my second patient) had been the Public Relations Manager of a large corporation. Several years previous, he had received severe head trauma in an accident and was rendered comatose. Complications from this eventually led him to become a FAIRHOPE patient. He lived at a nursing home and, even though he lay motionless in his bed, the staff felt that he could understand conversation.

His wife was there during my initial visit, so I introduced myself to both of them. As I had been taught by the FAIRHOPE Volunteer Coordinator, I always give my patient the respect he deserves by talking to him whenever he is in the room, even if he is in a coma. His wife and I agreed that I would visit twice a week. During this entire initial visit the patient laid there motionless.

Between that visit and my second one I had no idea what I should do or say to a person who was non-communicative and non-responsive. It soon occurred to me that since his career dealt with public relations that he’d surely have a sense of humor and appreciate a good joke.

As luck would have it, for years I have written down jokes that I hear because I can never remember them. Some of these jokes were printed off the Internet, some written on yellow legal pads, and some written on napkins. I keep them in a binder. I decided to bring in that binder and read to him, figuring that even if he couldn’t respond to them at least I’d have a fun time.

I obviously didn’t know what type of humor he enjoyed so I read several different types of jokes to him; a few long ones, a few short ones, and the usual guy-walks-in-to-a-bar type joke. I noticed that he was moving around ever so slightly. Could be that was normal, but I thought that just maybe he was enjoying a few of the jokes. But after hearing this story, one of my daughters said that he was simply trying to get out of bed and run out of the room.

Anyway, I began to read to him a whole string of Rodney Dangerfield one-liners and he began to move more noticeably around in his bed. I knew he was enjoying Rodney’s type of humor. One joke was, “I was so ugly as a kid that I had to trick-or-treat by phone.” He slightly arched his back and his mouth opened just a little. He was laughing! At that moment I knew that I would enjoy being a FAIRHOPE Hospice volunteer.

I had briefly lightened the load of someone who had been carrying a lot of emotional weight for a long time. I’m sure that was the last laugh he had on Earth because he died less than 48 hours later. I don’t know how long he’d been lying in that nursing home depressed and silent, but I know that he left with a smile on his face. St. Peter must have been wondering “What’s this guy laughing about?” when he approached the Pearly Gates.

My first real patient did not need any more stillness. He needed to celebrate life, to have some enjoyment and I thank God for giving me the idea to bring in my binder full of jokes. He got me hooked on FAIRHOPE Hospice. He also taught me that humor is important in life, even in the last few hours.

The positive effect that humor had on me, and evidently on my patient, is well known by anyone who has had a good laugh. Humor in stressful situations has been studied and documented. Specifically, there has been much research involving humor in the hospice setting.

In one example, Herth’s 1995 study of 141 hospice and home health care nurses found that sharing positive feelings, through humor, helped the participants feel “Like a real person again”. The positive effects of humor, as seen by these participants, were that humor helped maintain a sense of belonging. I.e.; all people in a group become one.

The researcher also found that it promoted relaxation. Humor helped alter perceptions meaning they found that patients felt that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Also in this study it was noted that humor offered a feeling of warmth, a sense of lightheartedness, and delight. Everyone knows that you feel better when you laugh. Humor was also found to be a life-enricher and a life-enhancer. Imagine that, experiencing a life-enhancer in the last months of life.

It is important, however, to be aware of everyone else’s feelings. There is nothing funny about caring for someone who is very sick. Insensitive joking is offensive and distressing. Know your audience before using humor. It is up to those involved in the situation to decide whether they want to see the humor.

Humor should never be ruled out in any care giving situation. It shows the human side of care giving. Humor is consistent with FAIRHOPE Hospice’s philosophy to celebrate life. It emphasizes the key ingredient in hospice care; life before death. As a hospice volunteer I learned from my patients that, yes, humor helps.

Rick Schneider, FAIRHOPE Hospice, writes a bi-weekly column published in The Logan Daily News. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.

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