Last week's blog was about love and dementia. This week's blog continues that discussion. Years ago, we had a "touch but don't look" culture, where it wasn't unusual for a whole household to sleep in a single bed but one's body was hidden from neck to toes under layers of clothing. Now, our American culture has changed to "look but don't touch," where people's bodies are more exposed but there is much less touching. Even so, we humans are herd animals. That is, we thrive in groups and decline when isolated. We all need to be touched.
As we age, we tend to experience touching less and less. If you were raised as I was, in a non- demonstrative family, touching can become almost non-existent unless you make a conscious effort to change that. This is also the case if you live alone. However, you can change this. You CAN make that conscious effort and start touching more.
In a care facility, loving touch can be rare unless the person has regular visitors, family or otherwise, and even then, it depends it depends on if the relationship between the visitor and resident has been a touching one or not. Residents do get quite a bit of custodial touch when they are helped to dress, eat, bathe, etc. Don't discount this. It is better than none, but it doesn't have the power that loving touching does.
Sadly, it can even become rare in a home situation as well. A care partner may get so enmeshed and burdened with caregiving that they neglect to take time for gentle touching and hugging--or they may just not be a toucher. If this last fits you, it does not mean that you don't love the person in your care. It simply means that once you know the value of touching, you will need to be more conscious about doing it since it isn't second nature for you. The upside of this is that you get equal value from that touching!
Recent research supports the value of touching. Studies have shown that:
- Hugging induces a chemical that increases feelings of connectedness, trust and security and reduces stress. Physically, it lowers blood pressure. Wow! Hugging is strong medicine! But there's more. Hugging that is front to front puts gentle pressure on the sternum which activates a process that strengthens the immune system. We often hug from the side, but make an effort to be more frontal...it is just healthier!
- Even holding hands is healthy and the emotionally closer your hand-holder is to you, the more help you get. Holding hands with a stranger will lower a person's anxiety level. Holding hands with a spouse--or care partner--is even better. They have MRI brain images to prove this.
- Cuddling or snuggling may even improve communication. Its non-verbal messages are powerful ways to let a loved one know you care.
- Touch improves cooperation. People who are touched briefly on the arm or shoulder are more likely to comply with requests such as volunteering for charitable activities. A study in a home for the elderly showed that when service staff touched the patients while verbally encouraging them to eat, these patients consumed more calories and protein for up to five days after the touch. (When I read this, I immediately wondered if those poor patients didn't get touched again for those five days! Did you? Research can be oh, so helpful but it can also be cruel at times such as these.)
- People recover more quickly from social rejection when they are holding a teddy bear on their lap. Also, loved one who are given a stuffed toy or a doll tend to express fewer needy symptoms and be less clingy.
For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia
Responsive Dementia Care: Fewer Behaviors Fewer Drugs
Lewy Body Dementia: A Manual for Staff
Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.