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The Power of Touch in Elder Caregiving

When Kay Olson checked her husband, John, age 66, into Lakeview Ranch in Dassel, Minnesota, caregivers greeted both of them with a hug. They immediately helped John into the bathroom, washing him gently. He came out crying what he told Kay were “happy tears.” John, who suffers from dementia, was kicked out of his previous facility for aggressive behavior. He would strike out at staff members, especially if someone tried to back him into a corner to force him to take medicine. That doesn’t happen at Lakeview, where caregivers sit with residents, holding their hands or tucking them into bed at night. Since John’s eyes are often closed and he rarely talks, touch “comforts him and makes him know he’s not alone,” Kay says. Judy Berry, founder of Lakeview Ranch, says touch is an integral component of her care. She is one of many who have seen the positive impacts of touch. A growing body of research is demonstrating the merits of this basic approach.

We’re Wired to Give and Receive Touch

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, says, as a species, humans are hardwired to give and receive touch and to benefit from it. He describes how touch triggers the activation of the orbitofrontal cortex and the release of oxytocin and endorphins, the “biological platforms of social connection.” He points to studies that show that massage has the same impact as the antidepressant Prozac, increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin while reducing stress hormone levels.

Touch Can Reduce Symptoms of Illness

Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says studies show that touch reduces pain, especially following strokes, and lowers blood pressure. A study she conducted evaluating the effectiveness of massage found significant decreases in Parkinson’s tremors. Massage therapy also decreased pacing, wandering, and combative behavior, symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Field says that many elderly patients are deprived of touch, having lost spouses, and “a lot of illnesses of the elderly may relate to their being touch deprived.”

A 2012 study in Supportive Care in Cancer showed that cancer patients, after being given a massage by their caregivers, reported reductions in pain, stress, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. “When you reduce stress and provide relaxation, all the symptoms are reduced,” says William Collinge, an author of the study. Massages also empower caregivers by providing them with a concrete way to help their loved ones, says Collinge. He says his is the first completely online caregiver education program of its kind and allows anyone to be easily trained to give an effective massage.

How to Provide the Best Use of Touch When Caregiving

Touch can be more difficult when adult children need to parent their parents, assisting with dressing them or taking them to the bathroom. Judy Berry suggests validating emotions on both ends, saying something like, “I know this is uncomfortable for both of us, but we’ll get through this together.” It’s important to recognize that not everybody is up for these tasks, and adult children should ask for help when it becomes insurmountable.

Ask permission. Say, “Can I give you a hug?” That gives the senior a sense of control and doesn’t violate their personal space, says Berry. Then, read their body language along the way to make sure they’re enjoying the experience.

Assess the senior’s nature. Some are more receptive to touch than others. Look for signs. If they recoil when you reach for their hand, don’t be insistent.

Keep it simple. The act of touch need not involve a professional-caliber massage. It can be as basic as giving a hand massage with scented lotion, says Drew.

Be passive, not aggressive. Drew suggests extending your hand and letting them take it, instead of grabbing theirs. Look them in the eye. Approach them from the front instead of behind. “All of those things help to respect the other person and let them know that they’re going to be encountering you,” she says.

By Julie Halpert, Caring.com Contributor