WHAT if there was a magic key that could unlock an elderly person suffering from dementia and open them up to a world of fun, laughter and absurdity?
Humour therapist Jean-Paul Bell may have found that key.
The co-founder of the Humour Foundation, which brought Clown Doctors to Australian hospitals, is now engaging staff and patients at aged care facilities around the Northern Rivers and beyond in his new program, Play Up.
His team of performers, dressed in livery blazers with brass buttons, topped off with a fez hat, brought their fun and games to The Cedars at Casino yesterday. It's one of 17 aged care facilities in the Whiddon Group and among the first in Australia to introduce Mr Bell's humour therapy program.
Each visiting Play Up performer is matched with a Play Up partner - a mainstream worker in the unit who wears a similar uniform in different colours. Yesterday's visit was an all-day training session for The Cedars staff who have volunteered to add "creative engagement" to their toolbag of aged care techniques.
"It's just magical," said the Director of Care Services at The Cedars and at Kyogle Court, Llyr Otto.
"It makes a huge difference to our clients with dementia and cognitive decline. We tend to forget that having fun is an essential part of life, no matter how old we are.
"By engaging with our residents, learning about what they've done in their lives and what their interests have been, and using humour, music and theatre, Play Up performers can revive their memories and feelings. The effects roll on way beyond the weekly sessions."
A three-year randomised controlled trial called the Smile Study, conducted by NSW University's Dementia Collaborative Research Centre, looked into the effects of humour therapy on 400 residents in 36 Australian aged care units. It showed humour was as effective as anti-psychotic drugs, decreasing agitation levels by up to 20%.
Mr Bell often meets people who are sad their elderly relative doesn't recognise them any more.
"You can cut right across that," he said. "Just by being whoever they think you are!"
IS LAUGHTER THE BEST MEDICINE?