Laughter is still the best medicine

Health: Ellen Young has written a book about finding the joy amid the hardships when caring for Alzheimer's patients.

May 02, 1999|By Deborah Stoudt | Deborah Stoudt,Special to the Sun

Ellen Young believes in finding the positive even in the worst of times. That's why the retired Lutherville social worker wrote "Between Two Worlds -- Special Moments of Alzheimer's and Dementia" (Prometheus Books, $24.95). The book, which will appear in stores next month, encourages Alzheimer's caregivers to laugh and find joy amid the hardships of dealing with the disease.

From her own experiences with her aunt, who died of complications from Alzheimer's at 85, and those of her mother, Mary Alice Parks, 88, an Alzheimer's patient at Keswick Multicare Center in Baltimore, Young wanted to share her survival strategy with other families to "lighten their load."

"When things get really rough, a caregiver has a decision to make," says Young, 62. "Either you're going to laugh or have a nervous breakdown. As a caregiver, you want to be strong and as emotionally healthy as possible. Laughing is an antidote to pain, and it doesn't cost us a nickel."

About 4 million people suffer from the insidious Alzheimer's, but projections estimate that by 2050, 14.8 million people will have the disease as the population continues to live longer, according to the Alzheimer's Education Referral Center in Silver Spring. Almost 48 percent of the population now over 85 has Alzheimer's.

Writing the book provided a cathartic experience for Young, who is contributing all proceeds to Alzheimer's research. She learned within an 18-month period 5 years ago that both her mother and aunt had Alzheimer's. Both started showing symptoms at 80 -- Young's mother would repeatedly call her to remind her of the same thing.

"I wanted to work through my own sense of grief and loss," says Young. "I felt totally devastated. I'm losing my loves. I adored my aunt and mother. We were like the Three Musketeers. And now I was losing two of them."

At the time, Young was already confronting her own mortality: She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

As a social worker for many years at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, Young had worked with Alzheimer's patients and families, helping with the difficult decision to find long-term care. She was familiar with the cruel face of Alzheimer's.

But as she listened to her mom and aunt banter, she began to find solace in their humorous comments.

"They were so adorable," she says. "They laughed and teased each other. Each accused the other of forgetting things."

Young would chuckle at them, and they would laugh, too. Soon they were all feeling better, she says.

In the book, Young relates a conversation with her mother, a longtime fan of Ronald Reagan. Young explained to her that she and Reagan have something in common -- Alzheimer's. Her mother's response: "I have? He has? Well, Nancy will just have to be jealous!"

Young began recording the humorous conversations to reread when she felt depressed, and realized other caregivers must have similar experiences. She mentioned to Cass Naugle, executive director of the Central Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association in Baltimore, that she wanted to write about the "cute and funny things" Alzheimer's patients say.

"I was hoping someone would do that," Naugle replied. Young says that gave her the courage to make her dream a reality. The book includes conversations between Young's mom and aunt and the experiences of other caregivers -- both funny and sad.

A husband tells about his wife hiding rolls of toilet tissue and then one day dumping 26 rolls on the bed. He was amazed she could remember where she had hid them all. A daughter recalls her mother periodically not recognizing her father and screaming for him to get out; he had to go to a neighbor's house until her memory returned.

Young devotes a chapter to "Clara," who in her dementia pleads with and swears at furniture she thinks is a person, and who refuses to believe that her son-in-law Tom is not her dead husband Ted come back to life.

At first glance, the notion of laughing at an Alzheimer's patient seems insensitive, but doctors say it eases a caregiver's stress and buoys the patient.

"It's a terrible disease that robs you of that person long before they are dead," says says Dr. Debra Wertheimer, a geriatrician at Levindale Hebrew Geriatrics Hospital and Center in Baltimore. "For that reason, it's important to find anything that makes you smile or laugh and relieves the tension."

Says Dr. Allen Genut, a neurologist in Baltimore who sees about 100 Alzheimer's patients each year: "Remembering the lighter moments gives loved ones something positive to remember about the patient."

So how do you find something humorous when a loved one is spiraling downward?

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