The man woke from his sleep at the sounds of movement around him. I’ll call him Louis. In a moment, he realized he was in a hospital bed and he remembered his wife’s unexpected call for an ambulance the night before. A nurse’s assistant introduced himself and then took Louis’s blood pressure.
Louis asked when his doctor would be coming in to see him. The man replied, “That will cost you $50 for me to answer.” He smiled and the both of them shared a laugh. He was joking with him and it worked – the tension for Louis of being in a strange bed and being prodded and poked was considerably lifted with this note of levity. Later, when Louis asked for a pitcher of water, the nurse’s assistant got it for him. ”Isn’t that going to cost me $50?” Louis asked. ”No,” he replied. ”For basic needs it’s free.”
The power of humor and joy can go a long way in helping an ill person feel better and making a real contribution to the cure. Literature for an upcoming conference in Manhattan called “The Joyful Heart – Bikur Cholim Tools to Uplift the Spirit” states that “Jewish wisdom teaches us that there are many pathways to healing that can have a profound impact on those we visit. Among these pathways is joy.”
The conference, sponsored by the Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services (JBFCS), will explore the role of humor and joy in coping with adversity, along with how-to applications and information on how these tools offer healing for both the visitor and the one being visited.
Two powerful advocates for this approach are Maimonides and Rabbi Nachman of Breslev.
“One should strengthen the patient’s physical vitality with nourishing food,” wrote Maimonides, “and spiritual powers with fragrant scents, music, by telling happy stories that expand the heart, and by distracting the mind with things that cause them and their friends to laugh.”
Rabbi Nachman said, “The mitzvah of visiting the sick is to show the patient a (smiling) face of radiant kindness. Rather than staying buried in our own homes and hiding our faces, we must visit, attend to their needs and speak to their heart.”
One way of speaking to the heart of ill individuals is to make a connection with them where they are willing to put aside thinking of their illness and instead focus on the happy and interesting stories and conversation you are providing, along with well-placed humor. I will be giving a talk at the conference on “Filling in the Gaps – Visiting with Seniors,” in which I will discuss meaningful interactions with people suffering from dementia and age-related memory loss.
I use anecdotes, role-playing and readings from my plays to help people identify better strategies in working and connecting with people who seem hard to reach. I will attempt – when reading and discussing excerpts from my play “Where Am I?” – to show how a 90-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s and a young caregiver end up, through empathetic listening, helping each other.
Other workshops at the conference include ”Constructing an Effective Synagogue Visiting Program,” “Basics of Mitzvah Clowning,” “Shame and Illness – How does the Visitor Respond?” and “Using the Telephone for Visiting.” Morning and afternoon speakers are Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, a leader in the Jewish healing movement, and Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of Up, Up and Oy Vey.
Two humor resources people can use in making bikur cholim visits or phone calls are the books Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor – From Biblical Times to the Modern Age by Henry D. Spalding.
For more information on JBFCS’s 23rd Annual Conference on Visiting the Sick, which will be held Sunday, November 14 from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at UJA-Federation of New York, 130 E. 59th St., New York, contact Rechel Schoenfeld at 212-632-4730 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost is $36 with some reductions offered. Breakfast and lunch (OU certification) will be served. My workshop is from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. I can be contacted at email@example.com.
Bikur Cholim of Boro Park offers an ongoing free leisure program that deals with the specific needs of men who are Holocaust survivors. “The Afternoon Chevra” is for retired men and meets on Monday afternoons at 1:30 at Sara Schenirer Hall, 4622 14th Avenue. It is wheelchair accessible. One of the goals of the program is to get to know the people of the community and offer assistance in other aspects of their lives. For more information, contact Rabbi Baruch Krupnik at 718-249-3415.
A Daf Yomi shiur open to the community is given by Rabbi Chaskel Scharf at Scharf’s Ateret Avot Senior Residence, 1410 E. 10th Street, Midwood, Brooklyn. It meets at 2:30 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday and 11:15 a.m. on Friday. Call 718-998-5400 for more information.
There is a Mah-jongg class that meets at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, 78-02 Bay Parkway, on Thursdays from noon to 2:45 p.m. For more information on this free group for people 60 or over, call Diane or Lisa at 718-943-6311. A Tai-Chi, stress releasing stretching class, is also offered on Wednesdays from 2-3 p.m. (Free; call before coming.)