Laughter in wonderland

2016/17 Fellow Charlotte Whittaker on moments of joy in an older people's care home

‘And it was her mother!’

The residents and I start laughing, properly giggling, so much so that I wonder whether we should postpone eating cake until after the hilarity has passed because of the choking risk.

We’re gathered around a table with an array of craft materials, pens and adult colouring books. There are five of us at the moment as we’re winding down the afternoon activity and I’m having too much fun to start clearing up.

I don’t know who’s mother it was or why, but it doesn’t matter. I am slowly becoming less bewildered by these unusual conversations on the dementia unit and discovering how much fun they can be.

One of the other ladies (lets call her Enid) says something to continue the fun and again we all laugh in response. It’s genuine laughter. I’m caught up in it partly because of the ridiculous nature of the occasion and partly because laughter is wonderfully infectious. It really doesn’t matter that the story is nonsense, not just imagined but lacking meaning and coherency. The raconteur has lost most of her language as her dementia has progressed and her speech is now very difficult to understand with only a few recognisable words. But the group I’m in aren’t going to let something minor like that stop their fun.

Another resident, ‘Pauline’, realises that her neighbour isn’t making sense, but seems relaxed and possibly quite glad to be in a situation where she is the one who knows whats going on. She interjects occasionally ‘Oh really?’ and ‘Fancy that!’ to encourage her friend and laughs enthusiastically with the rest of us. I’m not sure Enid’s other neighbour has noticed anything odd. Her dementia would mean that she couldn’t follow a complex anecdote told rationally, but here each idea is received as it is given, devoid of any context and with a smile. The last resident with us is quiet. She is also living with advance dementia and is deaf so can’t be hearing much of what is being said, but gamely picks up on the cues to smile and laugh, eyes twinkling.

I’m the fifth person at the table and my main contribution at the moment is to draw their attention to their tea periodically so they get to drink it hot, timing my moments so I don’t interrupt the magic. It really is a bizarre form of social exchange to watch, but wonderful. In a way, these women are demonstrating that the fundamental joy of communication is in feeling connected to others, rather than in the transfer of information or meaning.

Linguistics analyses speech acts (for these purposes ‘chatting’) as having both a semantic (meaning) and pragmatic (purpose) dimension. For example, ‘do you have the time?’ has a semantic literal meaning and serves the pragmatic purpose of getting someone to tell you the time. The distinction is very helpful for various academic ideas but it has never seemed as real to me as watching this group chatting. There is very little semantic content – none of us could tell you what topic we were talking about and many of the utterances were not recognisable words or sentences. But amazingly the pragmatic purpose of chatting over a cup of tea and an abandoned colouring book had survived almost intact. Slight changes in tone, eye contact, the echoing of sounds and intonation are all being used to create a shared communication experience, expressed sometimes in interested murmuring, then in enthusiastic agreement, and most wonderfully sometimes erupting into contagious giggles.

It reminds me of one of C. S. Lewis’ observations on laughter in The Screwtape letters

“I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause.”

I can relate to this experience of being in a group of loved ones laughing together out of all proportion to the wittiness of our remarks, and it makes me think that what’s happening at the craft table isn’t all that different. It’s as if this group has at some level recognised that making and understanding jokes isn’t necessary when we’re constantly surrounded by the comical in everyday life. As we gently start singing and chortling along to ‘Long way to Tipperary’ coming through from next-door I have a sudden desire to freeze the moment, for these residents to be able to prolong this feeling of happiness.

This isn’t what the dementia unit is like all the time. There are hard, sad moments and times where the communication gap is hard to bridge. So I’m glad that I can join these women in their wonderful, illogical laughter on this occasion. In the sometimes topsy-turvy world of the unit, where I sometimes feel like Alice down a rabbit hole, getting our laughs however we can feels like a very rational response.

Closing our Doors

Year Here will be closing by the end of this year. Read our blog to find out more about this decision.