A crying baby elicits a predictable response from its parents or grandparents. An adult swoops in, lifts the baby in their arms, and snuggles, cradles, maybe even rocks the baby as the cries diminish, their breathing settles, the baby calms. As babies become children and even young adults, soothing and reassurance comes by way of hugs, pats on the back, a quick shoulder rub, or a hand laid on a forearm. These seemingly simple touches have enormous effects because they are hard-wired in human development. It should not be surprising then, that physical contact is a vital tool for those caring for loved ones with Dementia.
No matter one’s age, human touch enhances communication by expressing emotion and offering reassurance. In a scientific study, a “sender” was asked to convey a range of emotions - happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, anger, fear, etc. – by touching the “receiver’s” forearm from behind a curtain. Receivers were able to accurately identify the emotion 48 - 83% of the time(1). No words spoken, no facial expressions visible – only variations in touch!
As a caregiver, the suggestion “Let’s get ready to go” may be easier to accomplish if accompanied by a warm hand on a shoulder. A gentle touch by a caregiver can improve compliance with requests, and offer reassurance when fear or concern is detected. Human touch increases the feeling of wellbeing by decreasing cortisol levels (the "stress“ hormone) and increasing oxytocin levels (the “love” hormone). If our goal is to care, comfort, and protect our loved ones with Dementia, the power of simple touch cannot be ignored.
From simple to professional, therapeutic massage intensifies the benefits of simple touch and introduces several more. Regular therapeutic massage lessens physical pain, decreases the physical symptoms of stress, reduces depression symptoms, improves immune function, and enhances attentiveness1. Because of these benefits, therapeutic massage should be on the menu of options for a loved one living with Dementia.
Lastly, we must not overlook the value of social interaction and connectedness delivered by a caring human touch. Humans are, after all, social animals. No matter the advances in technology, it is clear that when human touch is withheld, a void remains that cannot easily be filled with spoken words or digital screens.
Note 1: Field, Tiffany. 2011. Developmental Review. (30) 2010 367-383. Touch for socioemotional and physical wellbeing: A review. Accessed May 29, 2020, from https://www.radboudcentrumvoormindfulness.nl/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/artikel-4.pdf
Contributor: Karen Ogden, DSA Team Member
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