The best medicine

NORTHFIELD, Ill. — Elinor Rubinberg launches into her weekly comedy routine based on real life. It’s just after 11 a.m. Thursday. This week’s topic: doing the wash.

“I told you the true story about how the washing machines now are so much deeper and I’m so much shorter,” Rubinberg tells more than 30 laughing senior citizens. “I picture myself falling into the washing machine.

“And somebody comes along and says, ‘Do you need help?’ And I say, ‘No, I’m washing my hair.'”

Rubinberg is one of the regulars in Laff-In, a senior citizen humor group that has met weekly for nine years to tell jokes and laugh together at the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield.

Laff-In, which draws members from Evanston and other North Shore suburbs, frequently takes its show on the road to retirement homes, hospitals and area high schools.

“We’ve gone to stroke victims in hospitals,” said Donn Gregori, 77, a founder of the group. “We’re somebody doing something, and it makes them feel better.”

Gregori — who wore a “former hippie” hat with fake gray hair and carried a bicycle horn — said he and two others started the group as they tried to overcome tragedy.

“When my daughter died, I was feeling sorry for myself,” Gregori said. “That’s when I really made a conscious effort to use comedy to get myself back in shape again. Laff-In was the only thing around.”

The group, which started out with just three members, now draws around 30 to 35 people from the North Shore for each meeting, Gregori said.

Telling jokes offers senior citizens a social group and a chance to talk about issues in a fun way.

“A lot of them come in because of problems, they maybe have lost somebody like I did,” Gregori said. “We have a lot of people like that who are just looking for a laugh or just looking for comedy.

“Seeing other people get better — that really makes you feel good about yourself.”

Telling jokes can be as important as getting a vitamin shot for maintaining health, said Carl Hatfield of Evanston, who has attended Laff-In for more than five years.

Hatfield, who drives an Oldsmobile with the Illinois license plate “DR SILLY,” said humor has the power to heal.

“Laughter is a therapeutic thing,” said Hatfield, 88, an ordained minister. “Even if you would fake the laughter, if you do, your mind doesn’t know the difference. When you laugh or get a good hug, those endorphins get alive.”

By laughing together group members build close relationships, which is important for senior citizens, said Joan Proell, director of leisure and learning at the North Shore Senior Center.

“(For seniors) that important social support system begins to dwindle,” Proell said. “There is a kind of a support system built into (the group) now based on the fact that they work so closely together, and they continue their relationships beyond Laff-In.”

The support system is constantly rotating, with some leaving and at least one new member at most meetings, Gregori said. “A lot of them moved to Florida or moved to nursing homes or just go to that big Laff-In in the sky.”