Laugh­ter for de­men­tia? No kid­ding

Peo­ple with mem­ory loss ben­e­fit from co­me­di­ans’ vis­its

The Morning Call - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Cathy Free

About a year af­ter Dani Klein Modis­ett moved her mother from Man­hat­tan to an Alzheimer’s care cen­ter near her Los An­ge­les home in 2016, she no­ticed that her mom, then 84, was sad and with­drawn.

Muriel Klein, once the life of the party (even with her mem­ory loss), was no longer talk­a­tive or in­ter­ested in food. She kept her head down and slept a lot.

“I was re­ally up­set, think­ing, ‘What have I done? Why did I take her from ev­ery­thing she loved in Man­hat­tan?’ ” Modis­ett said.

Dur­ing a den­tal exam one af­ter­noon, Modis­ett, an au­thor and for­mer stand-up co­me­dian, tear­fully told her den­tist about her mother, say­ing she wished she could hire a co­me­dian for her.

“Why don’t you?” her den­tist replied.

Modis­ett went home and made a few calls, and soon she had hired a stand-up co­me­dian to visit her mom eight hours a week.

The first day, the co­me­dian told Klein: “Some days, I don’t want to talk ei­ther, Muriel. When some­one gets in my face, I think, ‘(ex­ple­tive), do I look like I want to talk?’ ”

Klein re­peated the ex­ple­tive — a Yid­dish word — laugh­ing. Then she re­peated it again. She lit up.

“Af­ter that visit, my mom be­came more en­gaged and started eat­ing and laugh­ing again,” said Modis­ett, who has taught comedy classes at the Univer­sity of California, Los An­ge­les. “She felt that she was be­ing seen.”

In early 2017, re­al­iz­ing that other se­niors with mem­ory loss could also ben­e­fit from some slap­stick and one-lin­ers, Modis­ett launched Laugh­ter on Call, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pairs co­me­di­ans with peo­ple who have de­men­tia and Alzheimer’s. The group also puts on laugh­ter work­shops and live comedy shows at care cen­ters.

Fam­i­lies and care fa­cil­i­ties

— Ju­liana Rocha, di­rec­tor of res­i­dent en­gage­ment and a mu­sic ther­a­pist for an Alzheimer’s care cen­ter

work out a fee in ad­vance with the co­me­di­ans for their ser­vices — gen­er­ally be­tween $25 and $50 an hour for one-on-one vis­its — said Modis­ett, 56.

“Co­me­di­ans can use the work, and peo­ple with mem­ory loss can use the laugh­ter,” she said.

With stud­ies show­ing that laugh­ter can im­prove health, ease stress and con­trib­ute to longevity, Modis­ett’s idea is start­ing to catch on.

Laugh­ter on Call’s two dozen co­me­di­ans mostly work in California, but some of the co­me­di­ans also have clients in other states. Modis­ett said she has got­ten in­quiries from mem­ory care cen­ters across the coun­try.

In Los An­ge­les, co­me­dian Marty Ross, 79, took up comedy 15 years ago af­ter nearly five decades in re­tail.

“Bring­ing laugh­ter to se­niors, es­pe­cially se­niors with Alzheimer’s, is so heart­warm­ing,” said Ross, who lives in Santa Clarita, California. “The re­al­iza­tion that many of these peo­ple don’t have reg­u­lar vis­its from fam­ily makes (it) even more spe­cial.”

Modis­ett’s mother now re­ceives twice-weekly vis­its from Michael Piper-Younie, 40, a stand-up co­me­dian from Los An­ge­les who said he has de­vel­oped more em­pa­thy and pa­tience since join­ing Laugh­ter on Call.

“Spend­ing time with Muriel gen­uinely makes me feel bet­ter about my own day-to-day,” he said. “When she sees me, the ex­cite­ment in her face is pal­pa­ble. She beams a huge smile and reaches out her hand to mine.”

For two hours, Piper-Younie tells funny sto­ries and makes silly faces, he said, and some­times, he and Klein will lis­ten to mu­sic or dance. Dur­ing their time to­gether, she never lets go of his hand.

“We’ve de­vel­oped a spe­cial bond that is ben­e­fi­cial for both of us,” he said. “I feel honored to be do­ing this beau­ti­ful work and to be Muriel’s com­pan­ion. When I get her to a full belly laugh, it re­ally makes my heart sing.”

Modis­ett said she knew it was time to move her mother to California when a friend from New York called in 2016 and said that Klein’s mem­ory loss had wors­ened.

Di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, Klein ini­tially ar­gued with wait­ers and had dif­fi­culty fill­ing out a bank de­posit slip, Modis­ett said.

“As time went on, I knew in my heart it wasn’t right to leave her in Man­hat­tan,” she said.

The var­i­ous care­givers and helpers were cost­ing $15,000 to $17,000 a month, she said, and the level of help still wasn’t enough.

Now 87, Klein seems more at peace with her­self, said Modis­ett. She smiles when she wakes up at her care cen­ter.

Care cen­ter em­ploy­ees who have hired Laugh­ter on Call co­me­di­ans to put on group shows say they’ve no­ticed changes in mem­ory-loss residents who watch the rou­tines.

“It helps them with their health — not just the mind, but the mind, body and soul,” said Ju­liana Rocha, di­rec­tor of res­i­dent en­gage­ment and a mu­sic ther­a­pist for a Sil­ver­ado Alzheimer’s care cen­ter in Los An­ge­les.

Every Fri­day, af­ter two or three co­me­di­ans get residents in­volved in in­ter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling, the se­niors seem less anx­ious and more fo­cused, Rocha said.

“They’re smil­ing, they’re en­gag­ing,” she said. “That kind of con­nec­tion helps to build brain cells and helps to slow the pro­gres­sion of de­men­tia.”

Al­though many mem­o­rycare pa­tients can’t com­mu­ni­cate the way they used to, the per­son that fam­i­lies and friends knew and loved is still in there, Modis­ett added.

“Through laugh­ter, we can start a con­ver­sa­tion and draw those per­son­al­i­ties out,” she said. “Co­me­di­ans in par­tic­u­lar have the charisma, courage and fear­less­ness to en­gage some­one who might be feel­ing con­fused, iso­lated or lonely.”

She re­called a re­cent af­ter­noon when a team of her co­me­di­ans put on a “Ti­tanic Re­mem­brance Day” show for sev­eral dozen peo­ple with de­men­tia.

“All of the residents were made ship­mates, and the band started lead­ing them in singing ‘Amaz­ing Grace,’ ” Modis­ett said. “I looked around and saw that ev­ery­one in the room was smil­ing and laugh­ing, and I knew that I was wit­ness­ing some­thing re­mark­able.”

For that hour, she said, “there was no anx­i­ety, stress or sad­ness. Only hap­pi­ness.”

“It helps (pa­tients) with their health — not just the mind, but the mind, body and soul.”

JENETA ST. CLAIR

Muriel Klein, right, who has Alzheimer’s, re­ceives twice-weekly vis­its from stand-up co­me­dian Michael Piper-Younie.

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