Leavening Life with Laughter

YOU DON’T STOP laughing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop laughing,” says Joanne Dodge of Dover. She’s a firm believer in the positive power of humor, not just for herself but for all. She has taken this belief to seniors throughout the Seacoast area in the hope of getting older people to laugh and enjoy their lives, even when beset by the trials of aging.

“We don’t like to be laughed at by others,” she says, “but it’s good to laugh at ourselves.”

“I’ve always liked comedy,” she muses, “but it never occurred to me to do anything with my interest. I was too busy. I had a family, then finished college and an MBA as an older student. I worked long days as chief financial officer of a nonprofit health provider. Who had time for anything else? But once in a while, watching a comic routine I would think ‘I could do that.’”

Then, all of a sudden it seemed, Dodge was retired. She wondered, “What’s this all about? What do retired people do?” Her mother, who lived in a retirement community in Florida, provided one all-too-typical example. “She sent schedules of activities to us. I thought, please Lord, there must be more to retirement than Bingo and Shuffleboard.”

She thought again about being a standup comic, but was afraid no one would find her funny. A friend suggested she get together with a group of older people to see what might develop. Dodge didn’t have a group of older friends, but she did live next door to an assisted living complex. She invited the residents to her house to get acquainted. Her neighbors were eager to talk, about old times, about the everyday trials of getting older and, with Dodge’s encouragement, about the sometimes hilarious happenings of daily life. The group was a success and a lot of fun. It grew into a writing and discussion group that has been meeting weekly since 1997.

One good idea led to another and, before long, Dodge was meeting with other senior groups. Notes from the meetings accumulated. Over the months these notes were assembled, edited and published as “Good Old Things,” a 60-page newsletter with essays, poems and musings from many people. It was a hit and is now published three times a year. “We need to laugh more at this time of life,” said one participant. “Every morning, we check the obituaries. If we’re not there, we know we have another day.”

“Once we have reached this age, we can do what we like,” added another. “We don’t edit what we say anymore. After all, how many more years do I have to say what I want?”

Dodge approached staff of the Greater Piscataqua Foundation about expanding the possibilities for senior humor. They suggested she contact Eileen Rogosin at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre about starting a senior theater group. Thus, Senior Moments was born. Senior Moments is a group of about 20 seniors who meet weekly to write and perform plays and skits. Rogosin works with the members, helping them to become more comfortable and adept onstage.

Last spring, the troupe performed “Dearly Departed” at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre. The setting was a funeral and at center stage was the “departed,” enjoying the event and quite able to talk back to those who were attending her funeral. “It’s a scene some of us could imagine for ourselves,” says Dodge. “It was funny and irreverent, yet thoughtful.”
“Help Me, I’m Falling and I Can’t Get Up” was performed in locations throughout the state last fall. It demonstrated, with humor, the dangers of falls for seniors and how falls can be prevented. On June 26, “Radio Days,” a look back at the best and worst of old time radio, will be performed at the Seacoast Rep.

Dodge is well aware of the downside of aging. Too often, elders live in isolation from the community and struggle alone with serious problems. “Good Old Things” and Senior Moments help break through the isolation and give seniors a new perspective. This year, Senior Moments goes on the road, to bring the opportunity for participatory theater to people in nursing homes and senior residences.

It’s not that humor assures a problem-free life, Dodge explains. Rather, it helps a person deal with what comes in a way that promotes healing, health and enjoyment. Dodge’s own life has had its ups and downs. A sense of humor has not prevented career struggles, family problems and illness. Having had three episodes of breast cancer, she surely knows that sometimes life isn’t funny. And yet — “What’s the singular of cleavage?” she asks with a chuckle.

Dodge and her husband Jim have lived in Dover since 1972. They are the parents of two daughters and have two grandchildren (“If I’d known grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first”).