Finding Their Happy Place // Laughing Along at the Senior Center

By Vicki Wilson

Who says there’s nothing funny about aging? From the sound of the rollicking guffaws coming out of the Bainbridge Island Senior Center on a recent Friday morning, getting older is absolutely hilarious.

The “students” in the Liberation Laughter class are clearly at the Ph.D. level of having a blast. The class, led by longtime senior center board member Nancy Lewars, uses improv techniques to encourage participants to jump in and have fun.

“The program is a distillation of a lot of improv games I learned,” said Lewars, who has taken improv with local teacher Chris Soldevilla. In order to make the class inclusive and unintimidating, she eliminated techniques that had any hint of competition. “There’s a lot of freedom here, and a lot of opportunities for people to feel like they got to look good.” The format stresses that there are no mistakes and people can always pass if they aren’t ready to play.

Almost no one passed the day we visited. The first game we observed involved making up a story one sentence at a time as the storytelling progressed around the circle. The only cue was the sentence had to begin with a randomly selected letter from a list on a whiteboard. When “H” and then “E” came up in succession, the story veered to the comical:

“How did we get here?”

“Everybody knows how we got here, just ask your parents.”

Another game that had the room in stitches was Gibberish. This activity required three participants; the first one says a phrase in a made up language of their own, the second interprets it, and the third responds in her own brand of gibberish, which is then decoded back to the first person by the interpreter. It’s funnier like this:

First person (to interpreter): Unga patchka dogerdenia fidunc el sed.

Interpreter (to third person): She said she’d prefer it if you weren’t in the carpool anymore.

Third person: Dulsum, correnty faler dill.

Interpreter (to first person): Well, considering that it’s her car…

“Liberation Laughter is a great example of the type of offering that makes our programming unique,” said Sue Barrington, manager of 50+ Programming for the Bainbridge Island parks district. “It is a homespun, unique curriculum that offers participants an opportunity to punctuate each week with a period of joy, laughter and friendship. The class hones healing and healthy life skills while building relationships.”

After class chats with some of the participants proved that such objectives are being met. For Jean Gibbs, the class was a lifeline that really plugged her into the community.

“I moved here five years ago with my husband, David, who was not in good health. My daughter (Sweetlife Farms owner Nancy Fortner) encouraged me to come, but I didn’t start coming until my husband passed away two years ago,” Gibbs said. “When I first came, I watched and thought, ‘I can’t do this.’” But the other members heartily encouraged her to come back, and she found the courage to do so. “I have not missed one class in three years; the women I’ve met are my inspiration and they’re like sisters.”

The laughter class is instructive in larger ways as well. For Mary Ann Nunns, a relative youngster at 67, it’s something of a roadmap for aging.

“This class is a marvelous opportunity to see women who are slightly older than me and hear the vibrancy of their laughter. Nobody gets books on what old age is going to be like. It’s encouraging to see [your ability to laugh] doesn’t diminish; life gets better.”

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