“To touch can be to give life,” said Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect and poet Michelangelo. I was privileged in 2014 to visit the Sistine Chapel in Rome and view Michelangelo’s fresco painting of “The Creation of Adam.” You may have seen this classic painting of God’s near-touching finger reaching out to bring “life” to Adam.
The scene is unforgettable! I wonder if Michelangelo knew that touch is the first sense developed by the body.
Our sense of touch is a basic human need, a lifeline that can communicate love, safety, care, reassurance, and trust. Touch is not an emotion, but emotions are formed through the physical, psychological and spiritual effects that we experience through this unique sense. Persons with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia do not lose their capacity for human emotion or their recognition of a caring touch.
Compared to our scientific knowledge of the other senses, our understanding of the sense of touch, and in particular how it is processed in the brain, is limited. According to neurobiologist Dr. David Linden, “genes, cells and neural circuits involved in the sense of touch have been crucial to creating our unique human experience.” Yet, writes Dr. Linden, the body’s touch circuits are “a weird, complex and often counterintuitive system.”
How the Brain Processes Touch
Our sense of touch does not have a specific place on the body where it is located, for it is found all over the body in our skin. Our skin is the largest organ in the somatic sensory system. The somatic sensory system has nerve endings and receptors that help us feel when something comes into contact with our skin.
When the touch, pain or heat sensors in our skin are stimulated, they send electrical impulses to our neurons. The neurons then act as a relay team, passing the electrical pulse from neuron to neuron until it reaches our spinal cord. Our spinal cord then takes the signal and sends it to our brain to translate it.
Neuroscientists have discovered that there are two distinct but parallel pathways in the brain for processing “touch” information. The first pathway is in the region of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex. This is the region that analyzes and processes information about the “facts” of a touch, such as vibration, pressure, texture, temperature and location.
The second pathway processes social and emotional information and activates brain regions associated with social bonding and our pleasure and pain centers.
Aging and Touch
Humans crave touch. Just as babies thrive and respond to being held, as we age our need for touch remains. Unfortunately, our sense of touch steadily deteriorates as we get older. Every year, starting at around age eighteen, we lose about one percent of our tactile sense. Some researchers explain that this could be the reason elderly people are so prone to falls – they get less tactile information from the soles of their feet when wearing shoes.
The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Touch
Research studies document physical and emotional health benefits of using “touch” in caring for a person with dementia. The physical benefits include:
- Lowering of blood pressure
- A decrease in pain
- An improvement in mood
- A decrease in stress-related cortisol
- A decrease in heart rate
- An increase in sensory awareness.
As to the emotional benefits, touch can communicate multiple positive emotions such as love, safety, care, reassurance, trust. Hugs, holding hands, a caress, or other physical gestures of affection can ease your loved one’s mind, help them feel less isolated, decrease their anxiety. Studies have shown that a person giving a hug gets just as much benefit as the person being hugged. For a person with Alzheimer’s, compassionate touch is a language of the human heart.
How You Can Help
1. Active Tactile Stimulation
The brain “feels,” so tactile stimuli is brain stimulation. The most sensitive parts of our body and those with the most nerve endings are our fingertips and mouth. Each of our fingertips has about 3,000 nerve receptors.
A person with dementia naturally gravitates toward tactile stimulation when they explore the fabric of their clothing or the smoothness of an object in front of them. Every solid object has texture, temperature, and shape. They can benefit from activities that involve handling a variety of objects to experience texture. These could include: squeezable balls, sensory “blankets,” activity muffs, finger painting, “clay” work with Play-Doh.
Go for a walk in a garden or woods and let your loved one touch leaves, tree bark, and flowers. Bring the feel of the outdoors inside by filling a tray or basket with similar objects like shells and coral to replicate the seashore, or acorns, pine cones, and various branches.
Incorporate “touch” into their daily routine, like folding warm laundry, sweeping the floor, arranging flowers in a vase, drying dishes, brushing a dog’s fur coat, knitting or crocheting.
2. Passive Tactile Stimulation
My Mom always seemed to want a handkerchief in her hand. She told me it gave her a feeling of reassurance. She also enjoyed carrying around a small purse that had a few items tucked in it like a comb and coin purse.
One of the ways I found to calm and comfort Mom when I visited her in the assisted living facility was to give her a weekly manicure. A pedicure and combing/brushing hair are other forms of passive tactile stimulation.
Giving a hand, foot, neck, or upper back massage is also a way to connect and communicate. Make sure your loved one gives you permission to do so. Do not surprise them. Use a little massage oil like lavender or lemon balm to add to the sensory experience.
When temperatures change in the fall and winter months, make sure your loved one is kept warm both inside and outdoors. They may not be able to tell you when they are hot or cold. Sitting wrapped in a soft blanket can provide comfort and warmth to an anxious person. Cover sofas or an armchair with fake fur or sheepskin.
Be on the alert to pain in your loved one at all stages of the disease. Pain often goes undetected, under-recognized, and under-treated in persons with dementia. Most studies suggest that the experience of pain is elevated in persons with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. However, pain sensitivity in the late stages is unclear, according to Sciencedaily.com.
Beside facial expressions like grimacing or frowning, some signs that your loved one is in pain include: guarding, bracing, moaning, sighing, aggressive behavior.
The bathroom and kitchen are places where scalding and burns happen. Adjust the water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and/or install anti-scald devices for water taps. Check into automatic shut-off devices for stoves and ovens. Unplug appliances when not in use.
Michelangelo symbolized the power of touch in his magnificent painting of the act of creation. Create opportunities each day to “give life” to your loved one. The sense of touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding and health.
I wish you peace, joy, courage, and patience in your caregiving today and every day!
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Read more about touch and the elderly at: http://www.comfortkeepers.com/home/info-center/senior-care/the-power-of-touch-and-what-it-means-for-the-elder#sthash.f1NaePg5.dpuf.
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Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley psychology professor and faculty director at the Greater Good Science Center, shares insights into touch therapies in this eight-minute YouTube video: https://youtu.be/GW5p8xOVwRo.
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The Alzheimer’s Association of Australia has a “Help Sheet on Pain.” You can find it here:
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For easy directions about giving a hand massage, check out: http://www.wikihow.com/Massage-Someone’s-Hand.
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