Done right, humor can blunt the indignities of aging

Can making older adults the butt of jokes be a blessing – in disguise?

Read this New York Times article about Koshihiro Kariya, a 61-year-old comedian in Japan, and decide for yourself.

Kariya earns a living telling jokes about the indignities of aging in books, on CDs, and in theaters, mostly packed by 60-something and 70-something women. This article leads with a good example:

“Forty years ago, when you were first married, your husband swept you up in his arms and carried you into the bedroom,” he said during a recent show.

“When was the last time that happened? 1962?” he continued, pointing at individual audience members. “For you, 1960? 1956? And over there, 1910?

“Now it is you who takes him by the hand into the bedroom. And what for? To change his adult diapers!”

A 63-year-old homemaker who is a fan told the reporter “Kimimaro-san is a comedian for an aging society. He is from our generation, so he understands our problems. He knows how to make us laugh, but he also gives us insight into our problems, and teaches us something.”

In an interview with the reporter, Kariya said “They laugh because they are afraid. I soften the blow of aging by talking to them not individually, but as an audience. That way, everyone can think that I am not really talking about them, but the person next to them. But they also know in their hearts that it is only a matter of time before their teeth and hair fall out.”

Judith GrahamJudith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.

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What could this possibly have to do with aging and health, you may be wondering?

Let’s start with loneliness, a pervasive problem for the elderly. Part of what fuels loneliness is a sense of not being seen or acknowledged in the broader society. Kariya’s shout-outs about aging help create a sense of community around the experience of growing older – something that it appears his audience appreciates.

Don’t underestimate the health effects of loneliness and the depression that it can engender. They’re considerable, and well-documented in a growing body of research.

Let’s not forget, also, that there’s something to laughter being the best medicine.

Making jokes normalizes our experiences. For the elderly, it can relieve the stress of feeling marginalized and under-valued. And it can be a safety valve, releasing the pressure of difficult pent-up emotions.

If you believe that psychological health has anything to do with looking reality in the face, Kariya’s slicing remarks cut right to the point.

“When you get old, everything seems to increase – your wrinkles, skin blemishes, cholesterol, body fat,” he’s quoted as saying in the New York Times article. “The only things that decrease are the size of your savings and the number of hairs on your head!” The piece continues:

“He says cruel things, but we forgive him because they’re true,” said one member of the audience, Hiromi Mochida, 68.

“I like him because he also reminds us about what we still have,” chimed in her friend, Yoko Hirata, 66. “Sometimes I get tired of my husband. But when I come here, I realize I am lucky to have him. I realize I could come here because of the money that he earned.

“Kimimaro-san makes me thankful for the time that we have had together, and the time that we have left,” she added. “Maybe that is the secret of elderly humor.”

I think Laura Carstensen of Stanford University, who’s done groundbreaking research on happiness in older people who realize they’re coming close to the ends of their lives, would appreciate that last point.

Lest this post be seen as an invitation to make merciless fun of older people, let me be clear: Pulling off what Kariya does so well takes enormous talent. I wouldn’t suggest it for reporters who labor in the trenches. But maybe his story will open your eyes to another dimension of aging: the fact that everyone, no matter what his or her age, can benefit from a good solid laugh every now and then.

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