What happens when the joke is about you?

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Taking the mickey, stirring the pot and having a laugh is an integral part of Australian culture, but how does it feel when the joke is about you? We asked people living with dementia about their sense of humour, what it feels like when people make jokes and how they respond.

Everyone’s sense of humour is different. What one person finds funny, another won’t. We spoke to John and Val who both live with dementia to hear their perspective on dementia and humour.


What is the difference between an appropriate or inappropriate joke?

John: Taking the mick is the Australian way, stirring the pot and all that sort of stuff but when someone is joking, and you feel like you are the butt of the joke rather than in the joke, there is a difference. So that I found really hard. But being in the joke, that is a whole different thing, that’s the Aussie way, that is what we do, we take the mickey out of each other and that’s fine. But if I’m the only one getting the mickey taken out of, that’s not fair. It’s soul destroying, it’s tough and I don’t think I’ve ever really admitted it until this conversation about how tough it’s been because this has been going on for years.


Do you think you have a good sense of humour?

Val: I tend to laugh at myself a lot, but I don’t cope with people laughing at me unless I’m laughing with them. When it’s done well, I’m included and the jokes are funny and I laugh with them, but these tend to be the in-jokes from a family, not related to dementia. I still have my sense of humour. I’m wary of using humour as I often don’t pick up body language, so I’ll laugh in humorous situations like the antics of a baby or an animal, but not when it’s a joke about someone.


Have you had an experience of people making unkind jokes about your dementia?

John: When I was still working I was having strokes every couple of days. I’ve got vascular dementia primarily, I just got stroke after stroke after stroke, mini strokes, and major strokes. I was still trying to work, and I got to the stage of total exhaustion, and I really found it hard to cope. People just didn’t understand. When I was having strokes, they never said it, but I felt like they thought “oh you’re incompetent”. I have a very high IQ, I’ve worked in many different professions in my life and I have a fairly high functioning intelligence. But when you are having strokes, your brain doesn’t work, and now I have dementia my brain doesn’t work, and so people who are making fun of that, they don’t make me angry, they make me feel destroyed, shattered. That someone could joke about the core of you being taken away from you. It rips my heart out actually when people were dismissing me as irrelevant, and they would do that sometimes by trying to joke. And I was not ready for a joke at that stage. At that early stage I was like I don’t even know what is happening to me how can you be taking the mickey?


What kind of inappropriate jokes have you experienced?

Val: After the initial diagnosis people just disappeared so there was no one to offend me. People would say, “when you come to your right mind you won’t be saying these things or doing these things”, but I was thinking I am in my right mind, this is me now. The classic line said is, “you don’t look like you have dementia”, or “I forget things too” and it’s meant kindly but it’s not funny. If I make the joke about me and people join in that’s fine. If people joke about me, that’s not ok.


What would you say to someone who is making unkind or inappropriate jokes about dementia?

John: The best way to help someone to help other people is to lift them up. People often poke fun as a defence mechanism for themselves. They think “I don’t understand it, so I’ll make a joke about it so then I’ll feel okay”. The first step is education and understanding and I think if we do that then they can have some compassion, they can understand that people living with dementia may be having trouble, they need help not ridicule.


Why do you think people make inappropriate jokes about dementia?

Val: For a lot of people, their mouths engage before their brain, so stuff comes out before they think about it. Education is really important and now I’m five to six years on from my diagnosis most people in my community are pretty aware of what dementia is and how to speak to me, or perhaps they avoid me. Or a bit of both!


Do you use humour to cope with your dementia?

John: If I don’t laugh, I will end up crying. Absolutely it is a coping mechanism. Those two emotions are extremely close together. I have to find the humour in the situation. I can’t remember a joke to save myself, so it is about finding the immediate, humorous, stupid, ridiculous situation and then playing on that a little bit is what I find helpful. If I can help someone to relax a little bit, it opens their brain up. If you are angry and very righteous they close their minds and that’s not what you want. You want people to open their thinking and humour is a fantastic way to do that. I think love is incredibly important and humour when you put that together is really useful. So humour that can be said in a loving, caring way is supportive. But something said in a derisive way or putting someone down that’s about as negative as you can get. It’s that two-edged sword, humour can be extremely supportive and incredibly negative too. So it’s getting the positive side of humour rather than the negative side.

We thank Val (pictured above) and John for sharing their thoughts for this article. 

Want to know more about dementia and humour? Check out these articles:

Is it okay to make jokes about dementia? We’ve probably all heard jokes about dementia. But are they funny or are they discriminatory and hurtful.

Can humour help you live with dementia? Christina, her sister Stephanie, and their mother Kay took a somewhat unconventional approach after Kay was diagnosed with dementia, involving a beautiful blend of adventure, togetherness, love and laughter!

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