Laughter, communication problems and dementia


  • Camilla Lindholm University of Helsinki



laughter, communication problems, dementia, elderly, conversation analysis


This article investigates how the elderly with dementia and their professional caregivers use laughter as a device to deal with problems related to language production and comprehension. The data consist of two game-playing situations, used to engage the elderly people in memory work. The article shows how the elderly patients recurrently laugh to acknowledge communication difficulties and to show awareness of their potential non-competency. The professional caregivers are shown to use slightly different strategies for responding to laughter segments initiated by the patients, either making the shortcomings part of the conversation or avoiding referring to the lapse explicitly. The laughter strategies used by the patients are compared to those reported in the CA-literature on laughter. It is well known that laughter is used in sequences of trouble and delicacy in both ordinary and institutional contexts, but my study shows that speakers with dementia laugh when they encounter problems related to language production and comprehension. This functional expansion in relation to premorbid occurrence is evidence that laughter fits the definition of compensatory behaviour utilized to overcome communication barriers. Certain conversational skills are preserved in individuals with dementia, but due to their cognitive impairment these resources are utilized in a slightly different way than by healthy speakers.

Author Biography

Camilla Lindholm, University of Helsinki

Camilla Lindholm (PhD) is a post doctoral researcher in the Department of Scandinavian Languages and Literature, University of Helsinki, Finland. She has conducted conversation analytic research on doctor–patient interaction and recently, interaction among elderly people with dementing illnesses.



How to Cite

Lindholm, C. (2008). Laughter, communication problems and dementia. Communication and Medicine, 5(1), 3–14.