Am I laughing at mum or with her – And does it really matter as long as I’m laughing?

“Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were? Our strange behavior and fumbled sentences change other’s perception of us and our perception of ourselves. We become ridiculous, incapable, comic.”

The above quote is taken from the film ‘Still Alice’ where the central character is reflecting on how dementia has affected her and this phrase resonated with me.  The very worst thing about my mum having Alzheimer’s is the indignity of it all; the fact that she, like thousands of others, has become ridiculous.  She has gone from being immaculately presented to literally dressing like a mad old woman and that has really taken some getting used to.  I started thinking recently about whether it is OK to laugh about some of the things that she says or does and when I started this blog I knew that I had to be very clear in my own mind about the tone I was setting.  I wanted to be able to illustrate some of the funnier aspects of living with Alzheimer’s Disease without bordering on mockery and this is a very fine line to tread.

We are all prone to inappropriate laughter from time to time.  Surely everyone has experienced that childhood scenario of being told off by a teacher, meeting a fellow perpetrator’s eye and bursting into giggles knowing that it will lead us into further trouble but being unable to stop ourselves.  Or that agonising feeling when someone starts to tell you a sad story (e.g. beloved family pet dies in horrific accident) and for some reason your mouth starts twitching and you have to look down at your feet to stop laughing.  I’m not sure why this happens or why some are more afflicted than others.  I think it is partly the fear of reacting inappropriately that makes us nervous, which then makes us giggle.  Extreme emotions often tip over into one another such as when someone laughs so much that they cry or vice versa and it is now widely understood that monkeys smile when they are scared (which puts a dampener on the PG Tips adverts of my youth).

So, laughing when we know we shouldn’t is a common phenomenon but is it socially and morally wrong to laugh at one’s parent if they have dementia? (note – it is obviously fine to laugh at one’s parent if they do not have dementia but are just behaving in a classic ’embarrassing dad’ way – dodgy dancing / improper wearing of bobble hat / farting in confined public spaces etc etc).  The way that mum behaves is often comical in a gentle, endearing way.  We wouldn’t think twice about chuckling fondly over a nonsensical speech from a toddler or a bizarre fixation with paper-folding from a pre-schooler so is it patronising to do so about an adult?  Similarly, if a child wets themselves in public the parent may relate the story to friends as an amusing anecdote without risking approbation and disapproval.  How different would it be for one to roar with laughter about adult incontinence (the only exception to this is the universal ‘my friend who got so drunk he urinated in a wardrobe’ story which, for some reason, is always socially acceptable).   My mum is much more likely to laugh at herself now.  She is more relaxed about all sorts of things and gives no thought at all to how she is perceived by others – which must be quite liberating really.  I hope that she wouldn’t mind me, my sister and even my dad occasionally chortling about some idiosyncratic foible she has developed or a practical daily task that degenerated into farce (see future posts; ‘when mum got stuck in the bath’, ‘when we went bra-shopping’ and ‘how to make a cup of tea with protein-shake, Bovril and cold water’).

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