“I hadn’t seen her laugh in months.”
Former UCLA standup comedy professor Dani Klein Modisett found relief after taking advice from her dentist. Her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, wasn’t adjusting well to the recent move from New York to L.A. She was acting depressed and withdrawn and wasn’t eating much. Klein Modisett mused to her dentist, “I wish I could hire a comedian to cheer my mother up”—to which the dentist replied, “Why don’t you?”
So she did. She put out a call on Facebook for a comedian interested in gerontology. Before long she was in touch with a friend of a friend who won her mom over with bluntness, a New York accent, and the use of the universally funny word “schmuck.”
“It changed her life,” Klein Modisett says. “She started eating again and she was singing and much more engaged with the community.”
Klein Modisett is careful to remind families: There is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s. But laughter and smiles go together for a reason. The Mayo Clinic has linked laughter to circulation, muscle relaxation, healthy stress response and an increase in feel-good endorphins. The Mayo Clinic says laughter may also improve the immune system, ease pain and alleviate depression and anxiety.
A growing number of families dealing with memory care reached out to Klein Modisett for help finding their own comic relief. So now she is CEO of Laughter On Call. The service helps families hire comedians for house calls and also hosts interactive storytelling shows in care homes. They even teach caregivers how to use the tactics of comedy to improve memory care.
Klein Modisett says a good comedian seems fully present, and free to be silly. Comedians also know how to live moment by moment; if one joke flops, they move right along. These skills are well-suited for interacting with someone who is forgetful or “in their own world.” If a woman is living in L.A. but convinced she’s spending a day out in Coney Island, Klein Modisett’s policy is to play along. “You’re never gonna win an argument with someone who has Alzheimer’s.”
Improv, she says. It’s what comedians are trained to do. It’s what life trains us all to do when a loved one starts forgetting.