Touch Therapy

As the social worker for Alzheimer’s Family Services, I talk with many families and professionals every day and fairly frequently I have the opportunity to speak to the community about Alzheimer’s. It was at one of these recent speaking engagements that I was going through my usual presentation about Alzheimer’s and communication and came across the slide about communication and the importance of touch. For some reason, the lesson of touch struck me that day. As I think about it more, the importance of the lesson has grown.  Touch, the simplest purest way for us to communicate with another person. We hug in greeting our friends and neighbors; we pat a person’s back when they achieve a goal; we even hold a person’s hand to show them love and affection or to simply let them know we are there. However, when a person (dementia or not) becomes older we often stop giving meaningful touch. When a person becomes sick either physically or mentally, such as Alzheimer’s, we stop meaningful touch. Why? Maybe because we’re worried that we’ll physically hurt that person or maybe it’s because we don’t know how the person would respond and we don’t want to cross a boundary. Think about it though- touch. It’s so simple and yet so vital to our well-being.  

There are many things a caregiver can do to help connect with and stimulate a person with dementia, and one of the most effective is the activity of touch. Visual stimulation usually only lasts a short time because the memory recall becomes shorter and they are easily distracted. This can feed frustration, agitation, mood swings, and stress reactions. However, tactile (touch activities) and aroma stimulation can bring calm and relaxation. Consider a dementia patient who is just not having a good day and they come to you tense and impatient. Using something as simple as lotion, you could take their hand and begin a gentle massage. The touch, being soft and gentle, will calm them almost immediately. Touching the skin this way begins to slow their heartbeat, alleviates anxiety and relaxes the mind and therefore the mood. Don’t underestimate the therapeutic effect of touch.

Below is a simple tactile activity to try your self. Two things to remember when thinking of providing a tactile activity:

  1. Know the person’s history. Make sure that the touch you are giving will be appropriate for the person’s history.
  2. Don’t push the activity. If they don’t want to participate, then that’s okay.

This activity is simple but rewarding. Put on some soft relaxing music, preferably in a room with a sink. Next, fill up a large basin or sink with warm water. Put in your washcloth to get it nice and warm. Then, take a washcloth and cover your loved one’s hands for about a minute. You should instantly see their faces relax. Then, put lotion on your loved one’s hands and give them a hand massage. If you are using the aroma therapy lotion, allow them to smell it. A few aromatherapy oils that have been found to be helpful are lemon balm, lavender, and sweet marjoram. Essential oils should be diluted before use, however, they may also be found already diluted in locations or creams.  Use this time for yourself as well. Enjoy it. Appreciate this time of gentle touch and let it communicate your heart.

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