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Interacting With Patients
Get ‘em to Laugh
How to get your patients out of their funk.

Leslie Gibson’s patient had gotten the boot from her nursing home. The 96-year-old crotchety woman commonly assailed nurses with bare-knuckled blows. Once home, neighbors witnessed the elderly woman’s emotional crash—and called in Leslie, a visiting nurse at the time, for support.

When Leslie first met her cranky patient, she saw that pain, anger, and confusion shrouded any vivacity that might have once been present.

Leslie had a laughable idea. She scrounged the local library for radio classic presentations of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and brought the recordings to her patient. As the patient listened to the 30-minute recording, her fury and confusion were transformed into pure mirth. Slowly—“almost like magic,” Leslie recalls—she came back to reality and was very pleasant.

The experience awakened Leslie, founder of The Morton Plant Mease Comedy Connection service (, to the idea that nurses can use humor to heal. Below, Leslie recommends the best methods for arousing hope through humor—especially if you’re not a comedian.

Smile. When patients are confined to a wheel chair destined for testing, or flat on a gurney awaiting surgery, they’re scared to death, literally. The unknown weighs them down. When you walk beside them, instead of turning away, Leslie recommends looking into their eyes and giving them a compassionate smile. “It’s a simple act that shows you notice them, and that they matter,” says Leslie. “And it is the building block for getting patients to lighten up.”

Uncover their sense of humor. To get your patients laughing, find out about your patient’s sense of humor. Ask them who they think is funny—or a movie that always makes them chortle: Did they laugh out loud at Tom Hanks in Big? Do they think Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi is classic? Did they get to experience a USO show in which Bob Hope performed? Do they still cackle at Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy”?

If they can’t think of a comedian or movie, get them talking about a funny event that happened in their life—like a birthday party or wedding that was a comedy of errors. Simply talking about these humorous stories causes patients to retrain their “poor me” perspective.

Send them on a mission. Leslie found that once you train your patients to look at the funny side of life, they look for more of it. “At the beginning of my shift, I’d often ask patients to come up with something humorous and share it with me at the end of my shift. The entire day patients would go through past editions of Reader’s Digest and old magazines and find something comical to share with me.” They learned to redirect their focus from their illness to something positive, and it changed their entire outlook. They also found joy in making the nursing staff lighten up.

Stock up on humor resources. Some hospitals have humor carts—and if yours doesn’t, consider creating one with help of fellow nurses and volunteers. A humor cart is stocked with comedic resources--books, comics, videos, audio recordings—from which patients can choose.

“Patients can pick what kind of comedy they like,” says Leslie. “A lot of women don’t like the Three Stooges but many men are put into a laughing fit by them. ‘Candid Camera’ is a great resource.”

If patients are especially worried about an upcoming procedure, or if they’re in a lot of pain, set them up with a movie for a couple of hours so their mind is redirected. You can even suggest having a family watch a show together, so they’re not sitting around looking at sterile hospital equipment. When you get the family laughing together, everyone’s mood lightens up.

With the right tools and a positive outlook, you don’t have to be a comedic genius to help even your crabbiest patients turn into dream patients. Remember, when they’re smiling, you’ll be smiling—and enjoying your job a little more, too.

Read more Interacting With Patients articles

5 Responses to “Get ‘em to Laugh”

  1. Denise Henderson-Graham Says:

    I think her idea was great. We all could use a lot more laughter.

  2. Lucky11 Says:

    This is perfect. I see so much wear and tear on the nurses on my unit as well as the clients we serve. Since I was a kid, I realized that laughter really was great medicine. I try to use it in my practice whenever possible, but it never occurred to me to make it something broader for the entire ward. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. liz Says:

    It would be great if they had something like the Starlight Foundation (kids charity) for adults, or a thing where people come in regularly with animals and stuff to cheer people up. You hear of these programs and stuff and yet I havent seen them in practice.

    Pets really make you laugh too! And really help relieve stres…unless of course they scare the patient

  4. Abeba Says:

    It is such a great idea. I have always used humor to lighten up myself and patients and make communication a bit more easier. And I tell you it works. If you couldnot think of any funny stuff, look them up in the eye and smile, they will smile back.

  5. Adam Shaw Says:

    For years as a nurse I found that laughter was the way forward. It was for Norman Cousins! I found out about his work as a student nurse and it inspired me to look for laughter in even the most bleak situations. More articles like this are the way forward for the health-care profession. Well done Melissa – keep up the good work.

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