Whenever I tell someone that I work with people with dementia, I am invariably met with a hilarious joke along the lines of “How do you remember to go to work? Ho Ho Ho!” or “I guess it wouldn’t matter if you were bad at your job, they wouldn’t remember anyway! Har Har HAR!”
Aside from not being funny, jokes like these make a mockery of a serious illness that has serious consequences. Here are five (of many) reasons why they need to STOP.
1: They’re disrespectful and hurtful
Just like making jokes about any other disability or illness, making a joke about dementia is disrespectful to the people it touches. Dementia can be devastating for the person diagnosed and their family, causing impairment to memory, language, thinking, planning, driving, independence and more. More important than that, a person with dementia is always at their core the same person they always were: maybe fun, opinionated, strong, intelligent, lively, thoughtful, trustworthy, organised, funny, kind, and so on. Just like everyone else, they have skills and wisdom that they can and do share on a daily basis. Making jokes not only makes light of the very real consequences of their disease, but also dehumanises the person behind the illness and downplays the valuable contribution they make to society.
2: They discourage people from seeking help
Unlike cancer, for which the profile has grown so much that one wouldn’t dare joke about it, dementia is a heavily stigmatised disease. People with dementia commonly report feeling embarrassed about their diagnosis and often don’t want friends and family to know. Jokes that paint an inaccurate picture of what it is like to have dementia are partly to blame for this: of course you’d be embarrassed if all you’ve ever heard is that dementia turns you into an incontinent, rambling mess. This discourages people with dementia and their families from accessing care, support networks or activities that can provide them with vital information and a community to make the journey easier.
3: Dementia doesn’t just happen to older people
When you make a joke about ‘senile old Aunt Milly’ or say ‘she’s just old and demented’, you are ignoring a large and growing group of people with dementia that emerged in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Young onset dementia (YOD) accounts for up to 9 per cent of all dementia cases, and can have devastating consequences for the person and their usually young family. People with YOD repeatedly report difficulties and delays with obtaining a diagnosis, and this is in part because of the wrong assumption that dementia is an ‘old persons disease’.
4: Even if it did, older people deserve your respect
At a recent conference I attended, one expert lamented that “so much of the difficulty in preventing, curing or caring for people with dementia comes down to ageism”. This could not be more true. Our society values youth to an extent that ageing is seen as a slow descent into death, with dementia a natural consequence of this ageing (which it is not). The nihilistic approach of “well, she’s going to die anyway” robs people with dementia of their personhood and of the care and support they deserve. Making jokes only perpetuates this ageism and the perception that the wellbeing of older people (and people with dementia) is less important than yours.
5: They’re not funny
Like, really not funny.