To maintain quality of life, best advice is 'keep laughing'

Health: Humor has been found to enhance a body's ability to resist disease, stress and pain.

Life After 50

April 07, 2002|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,Special to the Sun

When Sandy Moehle received a birthday card that read "Old age ain't for sissies," the sentiment summed up her feelings about dealing with the physical and mental challenges of aging.

It also made her laugh.

"I'm going to put the saying up in my office," says Moehle, 57, program manager for addiction recovery services at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. "Some parts of getting older are a real pain, but seeing the humor in them makes the process easier to deal with."

Remember the old saying, "Laughter is the best medicine"? Turns out Grandma might have been right -- a growing number of Web sites, books and audio tapes explore the connection between positive aging and humor.

Steven M. Sultanoff, a California clinical psychologist, past president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor and a self-labeled "mirthologist," says the benefits of laughter are no joke. Learning to enjoy the ups -- and downs -- of life reduces stress, provides perspective, improves communication, energizes, enhances relationships and generally makes people feel better.

"Studies show humor may be dangerous to your illness," writes Sultanoff, who maintains the Web site, which includes an extensive section devoted to age-related humor. "Research has clearly indicated that negative thinking and emotional distress lead to disease. Humor changes negative thinking and emotional distress and therefore can be a powerful health intervention."

Research, though limited, indicates that laughing enhances the immune system, reduces stress and increases tolerance to pain. Humor also has proved a valuable tool for people who are facing serious illness and medical treatment.

"Forget about the 'it only hurts when I laugh' concept," says author and humorist Loretta LaRoche. "The truth is it hurts more when you don't laugh."

LaRoche, a 62-year-old grandmother of 11, acknowledges that while failing health, the loss of loved ones and other realities of aging aren't funny, a sense of humor is one of the best coping mechanisms around.

"Sure, aging is tough, but what's the alternative?" says LaRoche, who recently released an audiotape titled "Aging With Humor." "Find your inner sitcom and make your last act a comedy."

A new book hitting shelves could help. Age Doesn't Matter Unless You're a Cheese: Wisdom From Our Elders, by Katherine and Ross Petras, is a collection of 350 notable quotes about getting older. Every contributor was over 60 when he or she made the statements. Although some quotes are serious reflections on the aging process, many, including the title (attributed to actress Billie Burke), are hilarious observations on the Golden Years.

Some examples:

* "A stockbroker urged me to buy a stock that would triple every year. I told him, 'At my age, I don't even buy green bananas.' " -- Claude Pepper

* "Last night I had a typical cholesterol-free dinner; baked squash, skimmed milk and gelatin. I'm sure this will not make me live longer, but I know it's going to seem longer." -- Groucho Marx

Carter Henderson, author of the book, Funny, I Don't Feel Old: How To Flourish After 50, (Institute for Contemporary Studies, $25.95), says older adults should focus less on the difficulties of aging and more on the things that make them smile -- and he works hard to follow his own advice. For example, six years ago, when Henderson, a former Wall Street Journal London bureau chief, got down on one knee at age 70 to propose to his wife, he says he wasn't sure what she'd say -- or if he'd be able to get back up again. But she said yes, and he did.

"By our age, we've learned not to take things so seriously and earned the right to laugh at ourselves," says Henderson. "As you get older, a sense of humor is one of the greatest gifts you can have."

Korky Vann writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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