Improving lives one smile at a time: 81-year-old spreads cheer, wisdom of good health with therapeutic laughter

Eighty-one-year-old Jordan Cohen has dedicated his retirement to helping others find their smiles.

"I want to help people shed their shell, enjoy life and better health," Cohen wrote in his book entitled "Making Your Day Makes Mine." He does this by inducing laughter and smiles through his zany antics, which include contorting his face into funny shapes, gyrating his arms and legs and impersonating a host of animal voices.

You may have seen him at a retirement community, at the local Costco on Fourth Avenue South or even on the famed "Tom Green Show" formerly on MTV. But wherever you may have seen him, you probably walked away laughing.

Healthful and helpful

Sitting in his lower Magnolia home office on a Friday in early December, Cohen leaned back in his chair, hands clasped and smiling.

His office contains a lifetime of memories. Memorabilia from his time in the service during World War II and photos of his 25th wedding anniversary neatly line the wall alongside newspaper clippings heralding his role in "Tony and Tina's Wedding," his Shining Light Award for volunteer service and photos of his 10 grandchildren.

Cohen began his quest to inject smiles and laughter into society after his retirement in 1993 from Jordan's, a western-wear department store he and his wife, Lillian, had owned in Port Orchard since 1979. It was during this time that Jordan started pursuing one of his greatest passions in life, comedic acting, which had been sparked during World War II after standing in for Bob Hope in Metz, France, with a comedy group called the Dehydrated Corn.

"I was hooked. To be a part of getting smiles and laughs out of men and women, in need of an uplift, inspired me to someday be involved in uplifting spirits," Cohen said in his book.

Pursuing his acting career and enduring several medical ailments of his own - including prostate cancer, a triple bypass and two back surgeries throughout the early and mid-'90s - Cohen made a concerted effort to become more healthful and helpful to those around him.

In 2002, Cohen started leading his free therapeutic laughing sessions at the Queen Anne Community Center, which are modeled after the practices of Norman Cousins. Cousins, author of "Anatomy of an Illness" pioneered the development of self-healing through laughter and positive thought after being diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative collagen disease.

Chronicling his recovery away from the clinical setting of a hospital and dispensing his knowledge and experiences to others, Cousins hoped to find alternative methods to promote overall health in combination with the practices of Western medicine. Today, his experiences have led to scientific research on the ability of laughter to heal the body, through energy gain, by muscle relaxation and the release of stress.

Medical science has determined "that laughing is hearty medicine that boosts the immune system," Cohen said, and it "triggers a flood of pleasure inducing neurochemicals in the brain."

Cohen points to several medical studies conducted over the last decade and the current use of humor therapy in hospitals as a supplement to clinical treatment.

A review of humor in the medical profession, conducted by Dr. Howard J. Bennett at George Washington University Medical Center, identified several studies by doctors and researchers around the county that have credited humor with better health and immune function.

Speaking to the therapeutic advantages it has in pediatrics, Bennett states humor "helps children overcome fear and anxiety associated with seeing the doctor."

Additionally, Bennett credits laughing with the relief of tension, increasing curiosity and giving them a sense of mastery over unfamiliar hospital surroundings.

Because of similar research he had found, Cohen began volunteering at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center, logging more than 80 hours within the last year.

Cohen makes his rounds as a gopher or deliveryman with his dog, Spot, perhaps one of the few non-human volunteers with an official badge. The hospital lets the pair entertain patients as they make their various deliveries to the patients throughout the hospital.

"I go around to the patients, me and Spot," Cohen said, with a huge smile as he barks and yips, holding the blue, bug-eyed, black-spotted dog.

"'Don't get too close; he'll wet your leg!' I warn them as they reach out," he said. "'He thinks they're fire hydrants!' They all jump back and start laughing!"

What [Cohen] is doing is well-received, and he enjoys it," said Denise Greene, the supervisor of the hospital's volunteer department, speaking to Cohen's volunteer efforts. "He makes duck or other animal noises when he gives [patients] a stuffed animal, and they just beam."

Having fun

Cohen also has made his laughing therapy sessions available to retirement homes, schools and local community events around the Greater Seattle area within the last few years, most recently, traveling to the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island.

Starting off many of his sessions with impromptu jokes and absurdities about life, Cohen likes to poke fun at his age and his ailments.

"I am 81, and I am old," he said standing in his den. "But I have a smile, I love life and I have a great attitude. These are the things I share with my audience. I want to help them feel those through laughter."

Cohen also uses a variety of release tactics modeled after Cousins', including jokes; deep, abdominal breathing; and laughing exercises designed to release tension.

"He is a firecracker," said Tim Pretare, of Seattle Parks and Recreation Department's Senior Adult Recreation. Pretare met Cohen two years ago and helped him cultivate and continue the laughing group at the Queen Anne Community Center, which was declining in popularity. Cohen came into the program and revived it, Pretare said.

"Society needs people like me because people are so uptight today," Cohen said. "There are so many people out there today, both men and women, who you can't get to smile. They are bitter, depressed and have negative attitudes. I am a firm believer that these are hazardous to your health!"

Ultimately, Cohen wants to help groups of people throughout the city form therapeutic laughing sessions that are less structured than those currently in existence. "Touch a person's life in a positive way and the benefits unfold and magnify," Cohen said of his goal.

"Many people have asked where I get my energy at age 81," he said. He tells them, through the "love and support of my family, self-esteem and touching one's life in a positive way, along with diet, exercise and, most importantly, liking yourself!"

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