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Home/Working With Seniors by Jeffrey Briar

laughter yoga childrenThis is a great article by Master Trainer Jeffrey Briar, which gives us essential guidelines on how to do Laughter Yoga with seniors, how to make them sit, how to connect and share with them and help them tide over age related problems.

These are his reflections from 8 years of experience of working with senior care centers which have benefited tremendously with his considerate and sensitive approach towards the inmates and his remarkable ability to use Laughter Yoga in the best possible way to bring more laughter and joy into their lives.

So read on and try and incorporate these suggestions in your sessions with seniors and experience the joy of seeing them smile!

1. Elders Are People Too

Folks in their senior years are just regular folks. They’re not necessarily disabled or extra-frail. Many Elders are still quite fit, playing tennis, surfing, swimming, mountain biking, running marathons, jogging 5 (or 10, or 50) miles.

That said, let me hasten to add: Most people (once they’ve passed the age of 30) have sustained some injuries, whether from a sports accident or stepping off a curb. This may result in some minor disability: a recurring sore back, shoulder pain, stiff knee, etc. Elders by definition have had more time to collect life experiences (including physical mishaps). You may find that, as a group, they have a relatively high percentage of minor (or major) physical challenges. When you first meet a new group of Elders, consider it an opportunity to learn what their life experiences have been (and what limitations they have, if any).

Some have challenges, but their situations may be very unique. One may have a non-functional shoulder, while their mind is sharp as a teenager’s. Another may be physically fine but has substantial memory loss. Another may be mentally alert but lost lung function, so they can’t breathe as deeply as they’d like. Elders are not inherently handicapped people. They don’t need to be coddled or talked down to. They just need to be treated with consideration (and respect), as all people do.

Anticipating there may be some with bodily challenges, be prepared with plenty of chairs for them to sit in. Advise the participants that it’s okay to sit, stand, change positions, etc. whenever they want to. They can honor their limitations in advance or at the moment they become aware of them. Remind participants that they can modify a practice to fit their comfort level, sit down if they feel tired, or take a rest.

When you work with groups where there is considerable loss of cognitive functioning (these days, often folks in their 90s and 100s), then you might choose to: use music, and sing songs together from their childhood.

Mix up those who are seated (in chairs or wheelchairs) with those who can walk around. For example: place the chair-bound in the center, facing out; when the laughter exercise is in progress, the walking folks can move around and interact with the chair-bound (as well as their fellow walking folks). Within the time of a few exercises, everyone will be able to interact with nearly everyone else.

2. Let Go Of Your Expectations - Work With Where They’re At

Their level of expression may seem low (to us more youthful folks). But what we think is “barely moving” may, for them, be the best workout they’ve had in years. It is also possible that some may romp around the room, frolicking like young deer, or work their way down to the floor and spin around like a child (or a break-dancing teen!). Embrace miracle stories! Don’t be surprised if you hear of pain disappearing after decades of suffering, or other amazing tales.

One laughter leader recounts doing a session at a senior home where a 74-year-old woman seemed at first skeptical but then joined in heartily – a seemingly unexceptional case. After the session the elder woman came up to the laughter leader and thanked her profusely, saying “That’s the first time I’ve laughed in 57 years.”

When this woman was 17 years old, she was “slammed”. Someone gave her a strong message that laughing out loud was unacceptable. (In Victorian times a socially repressing slogan was: “Ladies smile; only Whores laugh.” Any woman who laughed aloud was considered guilty of a crime against good manners, subject to severe stigma and negative judgment. Thus women learned to suppress the expression of joy which had seemed so natural when they were young.)

What a blessing to be the Laughter Leader who was able to set this woman free from all that negative garbage! Finally, at age 74, she could begin enjoying one of life’s great treasures: hearty hilarity with caring friends.

3. Look Deep Into Their Eyes, Connect With Them And Share From Your Heart

When you look into another’s eyes, even through cataracts or dimness you can see there’s a spark in there, a child within; an inner five-year-old ready to come out and play in a timeless way, even if the body can’t keep up with the spirit.They will be so happy to play in spirit (emotionally), they aren’t going to focus on the way their body can’t participate as fully as it used to.

My sincere advice: Get over yourself (your self-assessing critical mind). If an inner voice gives you a limiting thought (such as: “I can’t relate to these folks, they’re too old/ill/messy”), first thank your mind for trying to protect you, and then move forward into a Higher Good: sharing and caring for lovely, loving people who just happen to have more years (and injuries) than you have (...so far!).

Let your heart open. Befriend them unconditionally. Let loving Elders (despite cataracts, or limping legs, or drooping eyelids, or low energy levels) support you in being willing to love anyone and everyone. They’ll be glad you did; and you’ll be glad you did!

A story: Ron Dick was in his eighties when we met and began our friendship. His body couldn’t do a whole lot. He’d survived many surgeries, and “died” (and was revived) on several occasions. But his mind was acute, his wit brilliant. We roared in laughter at many a joke, devised by either one of us.

Our buddy-hood began before I did Laughter Yoga. I was teaching a Chair Exercise class at the senior home where he lived (and where he met his future wife). Ron and I soon came to admire our shared sense of humor. When I brought Laughter Yoga to our friendship, Ron was bemused and intrigued, although it wasn’t his cup of tea. He was glad I didn’t give up my sense of humor (and ability to create puns) even when I didn’t need them anymore in order to laugh.

Ron passed away about 6 years after we’d first met, but we enjoyed a wonderful friendship while he was here.

4. Focus On Success, Always

Genuinely give attention to and acknowledge their achievements. Examples: “You got one arm off your lap today Marian – great job!” “Hey Bob, I think I actually heard your laugh all the way from the other side of the room here. Well done, pal!” This is not to be sarcastic or fake; it is to sincerely find the victories in each moment’s expression.

A person’s effort can only be judged a “failure” if you’ve set up a standard which is not met. If you lower expectations (or have no expectations, but rather treat every session as a clean slate), then every expression, every presence, every positive effort – even a thought - is a victory.

Why Laughter Yoga Is So Great For Elders

Not every Elder can stand up to do Tai Chi, or have the patience to do Meditation. (Sometimes, prescribed medications make it nearly impossible to sit still and meditate.) Many Elders will not have the coordination to play Ping Pong, or the mental acuity to remember the rules to a card game. But everyone can laugh; nearly everyone can look into another person’s eyes (and allow another person to look into their own) and reconnect with the Joy which they felt when they were a child. Such Joy is the birthright of every human being. We can conjure up that same Joy through playful interactive laughter.

So if you are drawn to the idea of working with Elders or even if you consider it a challenge, my advice is: Go For It! Give it a try. You have very little to lose (other than your own preconceptions), and much to gain: the joy (and great stories from the experiences) of a tremendous group of caring, sharing people.

Contact: Jeffrey@laughteryoga.org or JoyfulB@cox.net

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