06/25/2013 08:39 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

How to Keep Humor in the Picture When Dealing With Dementia

People have often asked me the best advice I can give when dealing with a dementia diagnosis. The best antidote to a daunting diagnosis is simple: humor.

As you've likely discovered, a diagnosis can be confusing, overwhelming, and even depressing. I have used humor many times throughout my professional practice and in my personal life. More times than not, it was the only thing that got me through the day.

My husband, who suffered from Lewy Body dementia, was able to employ his sense of humor for months after he could hardly even speak. I encouraged him to laugh, and we laughed together. We would have fun with the doctors, nurses, and aides. His jokes were simple and never at any one's expense. He would provide a twist on a theme that would surprise and then delight his listeners. Even the persnickety staff enjoyed visiting him.

Even at the end of his bout with dementia, when confined to a nursing home and practically mute, he would smile in such a beautiful way that people responded to him. It was a pleasure to see this paralyzed man in a wheelchair who couldn't talk smiling at his visitors. And I smiled right along with him.

Anna Freud regarded humor as one of the highest defense mechanisms possible. With humor we are able to dispel anxiety, contain aggression, and dissipate depression. Humor gives us an overt expression of feelings without personal discomfort or unpleasant effects on others. Laughter has been found to lower blood pressure, massage important muscles, and release endorphins into the circulation. With humor we can focus on what is too terrible to be borne. And when we are laughing we are not in fear.

You might think there is nothing humorous about caring for a loved one with dementia. In order to maintain my sanity, I found humor in everyday events at the nursing home when I visited my husband there. We would joke that cappuccino carts would be a welcome addition to the afternoon lemonade. My sense of humor kept me afloat hours after I left him; whether running a simple errand, retuning phone calls, or struggling to find a seat on the subway, I purposefully vowed not to let the stresses of daily life get to me. I chose to laugh things off.

If you struggle with keeping things light, these tips help keep humor in the picture:

1) Try to reframe frustrating events that inevitably occur when you are dealing with nurses and doctors. Whether it's a dietary constraint they are insisting upon, a change in staff and the dispensing of medication, or a rigid cessation of visiting hours, try to let simple things roll off your shoulders. You may even try engaging the staff in humorous banter.

2) Watch comedies with your loved one. Whether it's old Marx Brothers movies or the latest romantic comedy, spend time with funny films and sit-comes. I've seen a lot of people with dementia remember a word or picture from a favorite movie and laugh out loud in response. And caregivers get a bit of comic relief, too: they'll loosen you up so you can be more effective as a caregiver.

3) Tell your loved one stories with props and small stuffed animals. He or she may push away stuffed bears or dogs at first, but if you have an easy, fun story to illustrate with them, your loved one may pay more attention than you expect. You may be surprised to find that you may elicit a smile or even a chuckle.

4) Bring in live animals to do some entertaining. Many nursing homes have animal-therapy programs in which patients can cuddle a cat or pet a dog. Even if your loved one with dementia never liked animals before, he or she may respond to them in a new way that brings joy and stress relief to the routine of the day.

5) Put on funny costumes, or even a hat or wig, and watch the results. One day I put a rainbow-colored wig on my husband and then gave him a mirror to see himself. At first he looked confused, but then he finally broke into a hearty laugh. We had worn those wigs at a costume party in the past. Some part of him remembered the fun we'd had.

As Mark Twain said, "Humor is mankind's greatest blessing." You will find that humor is a great blessing when dealing with dementia.

For more by Carol W. Berman, M.D., click here.

For more on aging, click here.