They say that laughter is the best medicine. After learning more about laughter therapy and even participating in an impromptu session, I am a believer. MaryLou Richardson enjoys painting, baking, boasting about great-grandchildren and teaching local residents to use laughter to improve their health. This remarkable woman is the leader of the Bellingham Laughter Club.
Born in Bellingham in 1927, MaryLou has seen a lot change over the last 90 years. She went to elementary school in a one room schoolhouse in Glacier, WA where her parents ran a lodge. She met her husband, Walt Richardson, when she was a sophomore at Bellingham High School. They were married for 58 years and had four kids. MaryLou proudly told me that her family has 30 members now including grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She recently set aside an evening to enjoy a cup of tea and her homemade cookies with me, so I could learn about how she is using laughter to make a difference.
Over a decade ago two of MaryLou’s friends started Bellingham Laughter Club. She joined them for a session without knowing too much about it. Around the same time her husband had become ill and she was not sleeping well. But after that first laughter session she went home and slept for a solid 12 hours. After her husband passed away, MaryLou attended the training to become a certified laughter leader and went on to take over the Bellingham Laughter Club. The club had regular meetings where attendees were encouraged to smile and laugh through a series of exercises.
Participants begin with “ha ha ha,” “he he he” and “ho ho ho” at high pitches and low pitches. By the time I finished practicing these sounds with MaryLou, I couldn’t contain my own genuine laughing. According to World Laughter Tour, “In the supportive environment of our therapeutic laughter sessions, clubs and events, participants learn how to laugh without the aid of jokes. Simulated laughter quickly becomes genuine, beneficial giggles, chuckles and belly laughter.”
Due to MaryLou’s age-related macular degeneration and loss of eyesight, she is not currently able to manage club rosters or drive to meetings. While discussing the frustrations that come along with aging, even for a sprightly nonagenarian, MaryLou said it is easier to handle because, “I have learned to laugh.” Despite her vision loss, she persisted and found a way to share laughter therapy with some of Bellingham’s most vulnerable residents.
She still regularly visits four local senior and memory care centers to lead laughter sessions with their patients: The Bellingham at Orhcard, Brookdale, Mt. Baker Care Center and St. Francis. “Many of these residents are so alone,” MaryLou told me of those who do not get visitors. She described one patient who came to a session feeling very upset and proclaiming, “Nothing can help me.” MaryLou pleaded with the patient to give her a chance and by the end she was smiling and clapping along. She had another participant tell her, “This is the first time I have laughed in seven years.” At times like these MaryLou knows that she is truly making a difference.
“I believe that every person is given a gift of some kind. And they are given that gift in order to give it away. I’ve been given the gift of laughter. It has helped me so much and so I am giving it away to those who don’t have anything to laugh about,” said MaryLou. In the past, MaryLou has hosted a laughing session in Elizabeth Park on the first Sunday of every month during summer. She hopes to do the same this year and it will be free for everyone to attend—her gift to the community.
The health benefits of laughter are not a joke. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing does more than lighten your mood. It causes physical changes when your body takes in more oxygen-rich air, your heart, lungs and muscles are stimulated and endorphins are released to make you feel good. Laughter has been proven effective to relieve symptoms of stress and pain. And long-term benefits can include an improved immune system and decreased depression and anxiety. These benefits have personally affected MaryLou. She believes laughter is one of the reasons she has been able to recover from a minor stroke and heart attack.
I am so grateful to MaryLou for sharing her story and laughter with me, and for teaching me to exercise my smile. If you would like more information about laughter therapy in Bellingham, including corporate, private or group sessions, you can reach MaryLou Richardson at 360-734-4989.