In my experience, with family, working in a nursing home and visiting our elder, I’ve seen how much touching is important. I can remember the smiles an elderly couple had when they sat holding hands. I’ve seen a comforting pat on the shoulder bring a smile. I’ve seen how something as simple as a hug has helped with minor behavior disturbances.
I’ve also seen how not being touched has been a problem. I’ve seen elders who’ve been more or less parked in a nursing home to die. Without interaction, that can happen. They lose the will to live.
It’s not catching: Perhaps because I’ve seen the positive effects touching has it never occurred to me to avoid touching someone with dementia or other problems. However, I’ve seen people sort of distance themselves, as if the elder has somehow developed a contagious disease. It’s not catching, and they still need to feel a gentle hand on the shoulder or a hug.
Why is it important? First, there are health benefits. Holding someone’s hand or giving them a hug can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure. In dementia patients, it reduces anxiety and behavior disturbances…especially when paired with verbal recognition. In fact the study suggests that this be taught to caregivers of dementia patients as it is “simple to learn and cost effective.” A little clinical, but true.
How to use touch: There are different ways to use touch in eldercare. Some elders, including those with dementia, don’t like certain types of touching. They may hate hugs but enjoy holding hands. I’ve seen one patient, who can become violent when hugged, enjoy a hand holding type dance with a caregiver. It’s important to figure out what is acceptable for the elder and what isn’t.
Second, let it be natural. A hand on the shoulder as you greet an elder who is sitting down is easy to do. A hug in greeting or before leaving is a cultural norm, and shouldn’t be stopped unless the elder doesn’t like it. Hand holding is variable. There are those who are comfortable with it (both as elder and as caregiver) and those who aren’t.
Our elders really need that physical contact. It helps them cope with the difficulties of memory loss, the loneliness that can happen after a spouse has passed away and the newness of having to move into some sort of assisted living or nursing home setting. It’s free, it’s easy and it helps.