David Zucker: Leaving laughter in his wake

When David Zucker walks into an assisted living facility, he doesn’t come empty-handed.
December 16, 2015

When David Zucker walks into an assisted living facility, he doesn’t come empty-handed. He brings pieces of wood, tennis balls, drumsticks, empty water bottles — and lots of laughs.

Zucker is the owner of Laughter Rhythm, a company he established three years ago. He visits nursing homes, public libraries and assisted living facilities, all with the goal of giving seniors the giggles while enabling them to make music and meditate.

“A lot of people think laughter occurs because something is funny, but they don’t see it as a healing tool,” Zucker said.

According to a study of older adults released last year by researchers at California’s Loma Linda University, humor and laughter can improve short-term memory and significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. 

To start his workshops, Zucker leads his groups in meditation. He asks them to close their eyes, do some deep breathing and play a rhythm instrument as a form of sound healing. Then he encourages them to laugh for a full five minutes with their eyes closed. After the seniors are relaxed, Zucker invites them to make music. 

“We use body rhythm, and I get them to tap different parts of their bodies,” he said. “It wakes up their insides a little bit.”

Zucker breaks out his homemade instruments and hands them to the seniors. They’ll tap on their drums to certain rhythms and phrases as a form of brain exercise. For example, Zucker will repeatedly say, “Laugh and smile just a while,” while the seniors play along. Those who are able will dance around the room, chant and shake their percussion instruments. 

By the time the session ends and Zucker packs up his instruments, he said those seniors who may have given him a cold reception upon his arrival are now speaking to him with warmth. 

“Some of them will say, ‘Stay away from me’ and ‘Don’t come near me’ when I get there. Afterward, they say, ‘I’m sorry. I loved this.’ Then they tell me their life stories,” he said.  

In his work, Zucker comes across seniors with memory loss, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He also works with healthy seniors and ones who are dealing with the loss of their spouses or family members. 

“There are a number of people that have searched me out because they felt like they wanted to get their life back,” he said. “They were grieving over the loss of a mother or husband. It doesn’t take away the grief but it definitely gives them a sense of hope.”

Jane Gold, a senior who has attended six Laughter Rhythm workshops at the Santa Monica Public Library, said she feels cheerful after the classes. 

“Laughter and music are the two things that really bring such joy to people. David has a way of combining those two elements,” she said. “At the end of the session, everyone is in such a better mood than when they came in.”

Zucker has always worked in entertainment. In addition to running Laughter Rhythm, he’s a mobile DJ, which he’s been doing for the past 35 years. He’s also a filmmaker, a yoga teacher and a certified laughter instructor, a title he earned from Laughter Online University. (No joke: It trains people in therapeutic laughter.)

Although Zucker has always entertained seniors in his role as a DJ, he said he thought he had much more to offer.

“Playing music for them was OK, but it was so common. I challenged myself artistically and creatively. I had been involved in the healing arts and taught yoga in Brazil. I said, ‘Let me try this and see how seniors respond.’ I got an amazing response.” 

Nancy Snyder, a Los Angeles resident whose father lives in a facility for the memory-impaired, said he took the workshop with about 40 of his peers. 

“Near the end of the session, Zucker asked my father what he liked about the music he just had participated in,” she said. “ ‘We all worked together to produce new music,’ my father replied with genuine enthusiasm. For that morning, and carrying over into the evening, my father and his fellow residents shook off their isolation and realized their own potential.”

When Zucker walks out of a nursing home, homemade instruments in tow, a positive vibe lingers for him, as well.

“I think what happens is there is a sense of reward when you see that you’re creating happiness for others,” he said. “It feels good when you can impact others. When you leave there, you see all these happy faces and people smiling.” 

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