Rita Robinson wheels herself into a carpeted dining room and takes her place in a semi-circle of women in wheelchairs. Propped up on a wall in the Burke Rehabilitation Center is a bulletin board with five rows of numbers topped by such titles as “Funny Business” and “Comic Strips.”
It’s time for “Humor Jeopardy” at the recreation therapy group in the White Plains physical rehabilitation center.
But first, on this rainy morning, it’s time for a joke.
Robinson, a retired office manager, opens her blue humor folder.
“What candy bar,” she asks, “is for people who don’t want to laugh out loud?”
Heads shake. “Snickers?” another woman in a wheelchair suggests.
Correct! Everyone … well, snickers.
Deirdre Otto, who runs the five-days-a-week group and serves as temporary Jeopardy host, smiles her approval.
In Otto’s group, members’ asides and interruptions, their jokes and funny stories, don’t detract from the therapy. They are the therapy.
The 3-year-old program, designed by Joanne Auerbach, Burke’s therapeutic recreation director, is believed to be the only one in the country that formally incorporates humor into the normal regimen of physical therapy. For 45 minutes a day, people with a variety of medical conditions — strokes, surgery, accidents — engage in structured levity. They sing songs, watch funny videos, play games.
Robinson, a Bronx native who lives in Port Chester, came to Burke this summer after fracturing her hip. She spent almost a month there learning how to get around with a walker and teaching Yiddish phrases to the staff members.
A therapist suggested the recreation therapy group. Her first day there they were playing Pig Mania, a game with tiny plastic porkers.
“I thought it was the silliest thing ever,” says Robinson, whose wheelchair is adorned with a yellow smiley sticker.
She kept coming back to the group. “It made me smile,” she says. “It’s mental therapy.”
In evaluation surveys, nearly 100 percent of the participants said they benefited from the group, according to a nomination filed for the New York State Therapeutic Recreation Association’s 2000 Innovative Program of the Year award. The Burke program won the award.
“I see people recruiting people,” Otto says. “They bring people with them. They talk about it at lunch. People have said this is a good way to start the day.”
Handpicked participants require a physician’s referral. Everyone signs a contract pledging to “take humor seriously” and “feel more motivated, confident, and better about myself.”
“The contract,” Otto says, “reinforces the seriousness” of the group. “They’re truly taking charge of their attitude.”
Everyone gets a humor folder, which includes a listing of the facility’s humor resources (dozens of books and tapes) and an explanation of laughter’s empirically proven benefits (first brought to public attention by the late Norman Cousins).
“The ability to sense and appreciate humor has been shown to buffer the mood disturbances which occur in response to negative life events,” Auerbach wrote in the original proposal for the program.
She made a presentation on her “Re(ha-ha)bilitation” work last year at the International Conference on the Positive Power of Humor and Creativity, an annual gathering of academic experts and on-the-job practitioners in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
For “graduates” of the Burke program, there is a certificate that states the recipient is “forever entitled to: Accentuate the positive; Blow bubbles; Be silly; Never be embarrassed by having fun.”
One woman graduate leaving Burke this morning receives her diploma and a wide cardboard smile on a stick. And the day’s Jeopardy winner wins a red rubber nose.
“Use it in good health,” Otto says.
Robinson will go home in a few days. “I’m in a good mood,” she says.
“I can’t praise this group enough,” she tells Otto.
Robinson will keep adding to her humor folder. “I might send you something once in a while.”