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What's funny about dementia?

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arts and theatre, communication, dementia awareness

Last week I found myself onstage at Nottingham University’s Lakeside Theatre as part of an evening exploring Comedy and Mental Health. The gentle reader may be relieved to learn that I wasn’t there to perform stand-up but instead as part of a panel to discuss the topic, albeit in a relaxed rather than formal ambience.

The event was one of a pair organised by Kirstie MacDonald [1], the other workshop having addressed diversity. Kirstie runs a social enterprise, connected with our Business School, called Laughing Matters and she has lots of contacts in the world of comedy. The event was hosted by Lucy Porter [2], a comedian familiar to Radio 4 and other audiences. There were four of us on the panel. Sam Avery [3] is a comedian from Liverpool (no stereotype there then) representing the Comedy Trust [4], a charitable organisation who run brilliant programmes to help people build confidence through stand-up comedy; Julie Gosling, described in her honorary doctoral citation [5] as ‘a resilient champion of social justice for disabled people and others’, though her own description is much more pithy; Gary Winship [6] from Nottingham University’s School of Education; yours truly.

Each of us delivered five minutes or so on our work and how we saw humour interacting with mental health. My own presentation featured our research on arts and dementia alongside other work we have done on activities, such as sports. How, if they work well, these things get people with dementia to light up from inside. How the common element of success is to suspend the fact of having dementia so that everyone participating does so as an equal. How that, if you could do this with a drug, it would be available on the NHS and be paid for, but because it isn’t a drug it often isn’t paid for.

Fortunately, I was the first to speak as I knew I would be immediately upstaged by two professional comedians, a self-confessed madwoman and subversive, and a tour-de-force slideshow from Gary with the history of comedy in five minutes.

After this we answered questions pre-arranged and from the floor. These included such things as whether there is any humour in dementia, what outcome measures might be relevant in demonstrating that an intervention works, and whether humour that is in bad taste can be genuinely funny. In response to the first question, dementia is of course not funny in itself but humour features in various ways: first, it is of course one of the ways we cope with life; second, if we can laugh at ourselves it is often good medicine; and of course the unexpected is always going to happen now and again at any time in life and that includes dementia. Finally, there is no reason why people with dementia should not retain their sense of fun, their ability to smile or to laugh. All these things are part of the human condition – as too is the propensity to develop dementia under certain circumstances.

The evening went by in a flash. We were just getting warmed up when we had to finish. It would be good to do it again.

[1] https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/business/news/former-city-finance-high-flier-explains-how-the-nottingham-mba-inspired-her-to-start-an-award-winning-social-enterprise.aspx

[2] http://www.lucyporter.co.uk/

[3] http://www.chortle.co.uk/comics/s/243/sam_avery

[4] http://thecomedytrust.com/

[5] http://www.ntualumni.org.uk/your_alumni_association/notable_alumni/honorary_graduates/julie_gosling

[6] http://winship.info/

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