It’s mid-morning in mid-Manhattan, and a former Hollywood comedy writer is working the crowd.
“Yossi,” asks Mort Scharfman, “you were in the armed forces?”
“Sure,” says Yossi, a veteran and proud of it.
Yossi, an American veteran, shakes his head in mock disgust. The crowd groans.
Scharfman, MSW, is rolling.
The crowd is five sextugenarians and older sitting around a few wooden tables in the sanctuary of the 55th Street Conservative Synagogue on the East Side. They are members of Senior Persons Association, a year-old day care program for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Scharfman founded the independent program last year with Rima Greenberg, a veteran psychoanalyst specializing in gerontology. The 55th Street Synagogue, and Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the West Side, donated space for the meetings.
Such day care programs, which offer members a structured opportunity to socialize, are a recent innovation. Only a handful exist in New York City, says Scharfman, who with Greenberg comprise the SPA’s professional staff.
The meetings, including brown bag lunch, are Monday to Thursday, four hours a day. For the spouses and children of the members, the time is a respite from around-the-clock care. For Scharfman it’s a chance to incorporate his reservoir of one-liners and puns into a form of treatment SPA bills as “laughter therapy.”
“How did the European Jews come to this country?” Scharfman asks.
“By boat,” one woman offers. Though SPA is open to the general community, all the current members are Jewish.
“Yidl by Yidl [Jew by Jew],” Scharfman answers.
“Belly laughs for the head,” he calls the program.
“Humor has always been a tradition in the Jewish world — it helped us survive,” says Scharfman, a Sabbath observer. He cites as inspiration the Talmudic story about the prophet Elijah promising a share in the world to come to men in the marketplace who make others laugh.
Scharfman’s work follows the philosophy of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, whose unusual medical career is chronicled in the current film starring Robin Williams (see accompanying story on page 34).
Part tummler, part Alex Trebek, Scharfman leads the seniors through a series of current events quizzes and fill-in-the punchline exercises, and some banter in Yiddish, all designed to get everyone participating — and laughing.
“It’s an experiment that seems to be working,” says Scharfman, a Brooklyn native who left a career of sitcom writing to earn a master’s degree in social work at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School. “We know the more active they are, to a certain degree the less rapid the degeneration.”
While the psychological and physiological benefits of laughter in treating a variety of medical conditions are well documented, little research has been done with Alzheimer’s.
“It makes sense — even to get the humor is a thought process,” says Dr. Steven Sultanoff, a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, Calif., and president-elect of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.
Alzheimer’s, which affects about 5 percent of adults older than 65, is a progressive disease of the brain that results in memory loss, impaired thinking and personality change. Loss of sense of humor can be a first sign of the disease.
“I don’t sit and tell jokes,” he says. “I get people to participate.” SPA members are afflicted with Alzheimer’s from the early to middle stages. Scharfman prods and kids them. Some kid back. “They laugh. They say funny things from time to time, ” he says. The more advanced Alzheimer’s cases seem barely aware of the repartee.
Scharfman arranges the rows of chairs, lined up for services, into a circle and pulls a woman from her seat. They dance. Tapes of Jewish music, including from “Fiddler on the Roof,” play in the background. “They feel as if they’re not lepers. They’re not being dropped off at a kennel for four hours,” he says.
Everyone is smiling.
“Laughter,” Scharfman says, “restores a feeling of control. They’re not just victimized by life.”
“The elderly people seem to have a good time,” says Marvin Janko, 73, a retired retailer who has attended the SPA sessions for three years. “My wife wanted me to do something to keep me occupied.”
Janko usually works on crossword puzzles while Scharfman shmoozes. “He keeps everyone interested in what he’s doing. Several of them have calmed down, from being very nervous.”
“We hear from the caregivers that [their loved ones] are much more active and alert than they were before becoming active in the group,” Scharfman says. “Many of them have reduced their medication. Some have come off medication. They’re less depressed. Many of them look forward” to the meetings.
He says he has noticed an improvement in some members’ short-term memory. “They remember who I am,” he says.
SPA, which grew out of Scharfman’s work with an Alzheimer’s day care group at Hunter College’s Brookdale Center on Aging in Manhattan, is not therapy or a support group, he stresses. “It’s a socialization group,” he says.
It gives the participants, many of whom live alone, a chance to get out. “If you don’t interact, your personality starts to diminish.”
SPA, a nonprofit group, has received a few small grants from the city. Scharfman and Greenberg pay for snacks and other expenses from their own pockets. “We’re not philanthropists,” he says.
Some colleagues disapprove of his use of humor with Alzheimer’s patients. “It’s inappropriate to make fun of their disease,” they tell him.
“The disease is the enemy,” he answers. “Why shouldn’t we make fun of it?”
Scharfman tells of one member of the group who came to him, agitated.
“I’m losing my memory,” the man complained. “What can I do?”
“Forget about it,” Scharfman advised.
The Senior Persons Association can be reached at (212) 977-5200.