A hug can provide solace. A gentle massage can soothe and calm. Holding hands can reassure. In short, “touch” can be a powerful “therapy” that comforts a loved one with dementia.
Some of my best memories in caring for my mother center around sitting together on the porch of the assisted living facility, without saying much, but just gently stroking her hands and seeing her smile.
I realize that not all family members feel comfortable about touching or hugging their relatives. There can even be issues rooted in a fear or stigma that touching a person with dementia will result in “catching” the disease.
If you are caring for a loved one in your home, caregiving might inevitably involve touching intimate areas, like changing incontinent pads or panties, toileting, or bathing a relative of the opposite sex. How do you become comfortable with the vital role that “touch” plays?
The first step is to reflect on the nature of touch as one of our most basic human needs, no matter age or physical or mental condition. The second step might be in confronting your own reservations about touch. For a person with dementia, the need to be comforted and reassured by the loving, gentle touch of a hand or hug can be life-affirming, decreasing their feelings of anxiety, fear, or loneliness.
The reflection below was composed by Merle Stern, to guide in a deeper understanding of the importance of the gift of “touch” in your caregiving role. In her own words, Merle notes: “I remember many years ago, as though it was yesterday. I took the two week old baby from the arms of her mother and held her close to my heart. The synchronization of the baby’s heart beat with my own heart beat was a memorable experience, and at that moment I became aware of the power of touch.”
To begin that inward journey of processing your personal experiences, you will need to withdraw to your sanctuary – that quiet place within you and surrounding you. Then, gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breathing. Experience the space around you and become at one with it.
Now, try to think of touching as a language: a language that speaks to the innermost sense of who we are; a language that has the potential to convey the depth of a relationship. The person whom you touch, and their response to your touch, has the ability to create a bond, and to build bridges that transcend words and invisible barriers. It simultaneously penetrates two different worlds.
Take a moment now to gently stroke your arm. Feel the softness of your skin as your touch communicates gentleness and tenderness. Note how you are giving and receiving at the same time. After a few moments, and through the medium of your touch, try to communicate different issues; for example approval, objection, or whatever comes to your mind. Become aware of how and what you are feeling simultaneously, both as the transmitter and receiver of that touch.
Focus again on your breathing. After a few moments scan over some of your life’s experiences, making notes in your journal as you go along:
- The touch that conveys your joy and well being;
- The touch that conveys your appreciation/gratitude for help given by a stranger;
- You have not seen a person for a long time and you reach out with a spontaneous hug – a hug that enhances your bonding and friendship that transcends time and distance;
- The way you touched a child who came to you for comfort and solace;
- The touch that expresses “welcome,” and one that expresses “goodbye;”
- The difference in touch when you stroke a kitten or dog, or other pet animal;
- The touch that conveys your compassion, empathy, and understanding.
Again, scan over your life and become aware of your own personal “touch history,” making notes in your journal as you go along:
Visualize yourself as a baby, reaching out to touch your mother’s breast or comforting your teddy bear;
- As a young child, the experiences of being touched by your mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents;
- As an adolescent and as an adult;
- As a parent to your child;
- As an adult child to your parent;
- As a spouse to your spouse.
Now reflect on your touch as a caregiver. Become aware that as you touch that person’s body, you are also touching his or her life. You invoke long forgotten memories of what once was and no longer is.
Throughout your caregiving, your touch conveys a variety of messages. Some of these messages include: your loved one is important; they are lovable; they do not need to be afraid; you are present with them on their journey.
Now, reflect on the possibility that the last touch in this person’s life may come from your hands. What would you like this last touch to convey, as you bid goodbye to your loved one who is transitioning to another realm?
Finally, take a look at your hands – the hands that will convey what words cannot. Feel your appreciation for your hands and the blessed gift of touch. Make a note in your journal of the value of this experience and how it can continue to enrich your life.
Our experiences of bonding often center on the sense of touch and communicate much more than words ever could. The British-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu sums it up in his 1971 landmark book, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin: “Touch conveys fondness, security, closeness, warmth, concern, and encouragement, and makes [older persons] feel an increased sense of trust and well-being.”
I wish you peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!
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Sincere thanks go to Merle Stern, my friend and mentor, who composed this reflection. Feel free to pass it on to family and friends, but please give credit to Merle and this website.
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Dave Otis, a licensed massage therapist, wrote easy directions for healthy self-massage exercises for hands, face, and neck. Check these out by going to: http://www.unh.edu/health-services/sites/unh.edu.health-services/files/media/PDF/Stress/SelfMassage.pdf.
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For a comprehensive article on “How Skilled Human Touch Can Transform Person-centered Dementia Care,” go here: https://www.nhqualitycampaign.org/files/Compassionate_Touch_White_Paper.pdf.
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My sister Marcia and I published a journal called My Blessings Journal. It can be a useful tool to introduce you to the joys of journal-keeping. To order a copy through my website click here: http://caregiverfamilies.com/book/.
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