A LAUGH A DAY KEEPS THE BLAHS AT BAY
At the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield, they laugh at old age, chuckle at wrinkles, joke about disease, and smile in the face of death. In what may be the best giggle of all, they laugh good-naturedly at one another--big belly laughs that can fill up a room and tickle the funny bone of even the grumpiest sourpuss. Who wouldn't crack up over the goofy skits, such as one with a gaggle of kazoo-players nasally humming "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and using a gelatin mold for a drum?
The weekly laugh-a-thon offers a regular dose of cornball humor that proponents say is practically guaranteed to keep the doctor away for at least another day.
All of this mirth is delivered in the form of an unusual program called Laff-In, which was created four years ago by center members in an effort to tap into the healing power of laughter. Those involved hope the skits--in which seniors entertain one another-- promote health and well-being and stave off loneliness.
"I don't think there is any question" it makes us feel better, said Emerson Lyons, 89, of Winnetka, one of the group's founders. "We can see the results in others and in ourselves."
Researchers say humor strengthens the immune system, eases depression, relieves pain, and helps people cope with the stresses of life.
"Laughter is very beneficial in the healing process," said Dr. Lee Berk, of Loma Linda Medical Center in California, where doctors have documented the positive effects of laughter on the immune system since 1983. "It is not hocus-pocus, it is very real."
At the North Shore Senior Center, Laff-In participants swear by it.
Here you can find the Fabulous Fogies singing and dancing in a rollicking disco review, learn about the latest "plastic surgery" techniques for sagging body parts, find an overwhelming array of clown noses and be entertained by the antics of the Romeos, aka: Retried Old Men Eating Out.
The performances are by members of the Northfield center, a non-profit facility that offers support services, as well as recreational, educational and social activities to older adults.
Laff-In started after some center members read the popular Norman Cousins book "Anatomy of an Illness," in which the author chronicled how he beat a debilitating disease by combining laughter and hope with standard medical treatment.
Each of Laff-In's three founding members was grieving over the death of a family member, and the three friends thought by sharing some laughs on a regular basis they would be able to ease the pain.
The idea was that we were all feeling sorry for ourselves . . . and we thought we would try this to feel better," said Don Gregori, 72, of Skokie, one of the founders. "I tried a grief group, but laughter turned out to be the best medicine for me. We don't set ourselves up as therapists or counselors. We're just out to have a good time."
That was April 1994--and the group has been going strong ever since, attracting 30 to 50 people to a crowded room each week for an hour of kidding around.
The free program also serves as an inspiration for other senior citizen organizations that come to watch and take notes. One recent morning, three representatives from the Western Springs Senior Center were in attendance looking for ideas.
And the Laff-In volunteers take their skits to area hospitals and schools once or twice a month. The program has received a MacArthur Foundation grant for its work.
Experts say the results can be measured scientifically. Laughing produces higher levels of immune-boosting T cells that can destroy viruses and tumors, disease-fighting antibodies that ward off infections, and pleasure-inducing beta endorphins that can counter the effects of stress and depression, according to researchers at Loma Linda.
"Intuitively we know that laughing is good for us.. . . It makes us feel better," said Ed Dunkelblau, a Des Plaines psychologist and the president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, a professional society of doctors, psychologists, nurses and others formed to promote the use of humor to ease stress and promote healing.
"It improves concentration, creativity and lifts mood. It is a vacation from worries and physically is aerobic. . . . Your heart rates goes up, blood pressure decreases and muscles relax," he said. And maybe even best of all, he said, "There are no side effects."
At the same time, he said, people should not get the idea that humor can be used in place of standard medical or psychological treatment--or that therapeutic humor is simply going to the doctor to get humorized.
The Northfield program is not unique in the Chicago area.
At Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, health care providers are trying to show patients ways to battle depression. One of the tools is humor.
"We're trying to teach people how they can change their thoughts and change their feelings," said Maggie Hahn, director of inpatient behavioral health services. "As a piece of a larger picture of treatment, it really is important and helps people get some perspective and to look at life from a different point of view."
For the seniors in Northfield, the weekly fun fests need no professional guidance. And at Laff-In, seniors also can tap into their skills and entertain each other in a way many of them have not been able to do since they retired.
"Where's a senior citizen going to go and find somebody to appreciate their talents?" Twiss said. "When people come here, they get to be active, and it really fills a void."
And when it comes to having fun, the length of one's lifetime is irrelevant. As Jay Goldman, 70, of Skokie, noted: "Age doesn't really matter unless you're a cheese."