Laughter and hospice
By Fran Moore, PT
The sound coming from the patient’s room in the otherwise peaceful hospice unit caused nurses and others to pop their heads in and make sure that everything was okay. The sound was the sound of side-splitting laughter of the patient’s visitors as she told stories that kept everybody in stitches. I was lucky enough to be among the audience – a visiting physical therapist who was charged with the task of keeping the patient moving to help maximize her quality of life in her final months. But the patient was in command of her attentive audience.
I had such a good time during that session that I wondered if I actually did my job! Well, the patient did do some exercising and walking between her stories, and I was able to show her family how to safely stand by to assist her as she got out of bed. Oh, and did I mention that she was blind? And that she lost her vision at around the same time she lost her husband of 50 years? In fact, she had so many losses in her long life, which would be ending soon, that I wondered how it was possible that she was still able to laugh – and to make others laugh at this fragile time in her life. I guess it was just her nature, or maybe she just decided to choose happiness and joy as she looked back on her rich, but not always easy, life.
But she wasn’t the only hospice patient that I’ve laughed with. In fact, life can be a funny thing when you don’t take yourself too seriously. Of course, I’m speaking for myself.
The late humorist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Art Buchwald, wrote about his hospice experience in a book, “Too Soon to Say Goodbye.” He said that when his friends first visited him in the inpatient hospice unit, they didn’t know how to behave. They wondered “…was there a hospice etiquette?” His friends soon relaxed and took their cues from the guy who was syndicated for humorously reporting on the foibles of the rich and famous and of life’s crazy situations. He said of his friends who were visiting, “The thing that they say makes them the happiest is that we can still laugh together.” Art Buchwald left us a legacy of laughter.
Let’s face it, though. Hospice life isn’t always a bowl of cherries for patients and those caring for them. Emotions are raw and often complicated. And this may be the last opportunity for patients and caregivers to savor those emotions. Lord knows, I’ve cried with almost as many patients as I’ve laughed with. And they haven’t refused my subsequent visits after I did.
Yet, some of my best experiences as a physical therapist are when I’m able to share joyful laughter with individuals who are at the end of their lives. Whether we laugh about stories from the past, or how we humans get so caught up in things that don’t really matter, laughter is a gift that I’m happy to share.
So, if you’re a caregiver or a visitor or even a long-lost friend of someone on hospice, leave your armor at the door. Allow your friend or patient or loved one to share his emotions. And don’t be afraid to laugh.