Drilling Down on Dementia: The Power of Touch

By Toni Lynn Davis MHA, CNHA, FACHCA, Executive Director/President Green Hill Inc.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the person directed care that we provide at Green Hill for our residents and their caregivers, is the integration of touch into daily life. This concept is true at all levels of care at Green Hill. Touch is customary in every interaction with our seniors, from a touch on the shoulder or hand holding at greeting, to a hug for compassion or congratulations, an arm in arm walk around the grounds, or a dance in the auditorium. Yet, for our seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, touch is extremely important in their daily plan of care.

Tactile stimulation is a powerful way to connect with a person who has lost verbal or cognitive abilities to communicate. The power of touch can provide a dramatic pathway to awakening communication opportunities with persons with dementia or Alzheimer’s. There are known health benefits to touch, like the lowering of blood pressure, an improvement in mood that can mitigate depression, and reduction of stress. However, touch for a person with dementia can also create a bridge to the present moment. If you walk with someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia while holding their hand, you may find that they easily follow and are engaged in the process of walking. If you let go of their hand you may notice that they will stop, become frozen or lost as to what to do next. If you take their hand again they will naturally continue along where you lead. The touch of the hand directs them back to the present.

Touch has a calming effect on person with Alzheimer’s or dementia and can aid in reducing agitation and inappropriate response. As noted on the website Verywell.com a study involving sixty-eight nursing home residents with dementia demonstrated that those who received hand massages for ten minutes showed significantly reduced agitation compared to those who received no intervention.

The benefits of massage in the care of people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia are showing tremendous results, as noted by the American Massage Therapy Association, in enhancing quality of life and the ability to function in daily activities. “There is a growing body of research to support the efficacy of skilled touch in dementia care and anecdotal reports from practitioners working with this population are extremely positive.”

A professional touch practitioner trained in working with people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is one that understands the progressive symptoms of these diseases. They may engage specific massage techniques on backs, arms, legs, feet and necks that can alleviate muscle spasms, soften contracted muscles, relieve minor aches and pains, improve circulation, promote relaxation and provide psychosocial benefits. Skin-to-skin contact and the one-on-one attention is an important conduit to a person’s well being and can increase verbal communication, as well as reduce the need for some types of medication.

Having the permission of the person to engage in touch and ensuring they are comfortable with each type of touch is important to establish prior to beginning any touch therapy. People have a variety of desires and thresholds for the intimacy of touching. Touch opportunities with family, friends and caregivers, those normal to daily activities such as applying lotion to hands and arms, brushing and fixing ones hair, a light shoulder rub can bring great physical and emotional benefits. These touch activities can also help bring the person into the present and increase tactile and mental stimulation. It is a great way to engage in non-verbal communication and make a person feel relaxed and loved.

There are other opportunities for touch to aid in the care and well being of people with Alzheimer’s or Dementia. In a process called “hand-over-hand”, a caregiver can guide a person in functions such as brushing their teeth, combing their hair and dressing. The touch of hand-on-hand leading helps a person with dementia, who still retains some of their gross motor skills, to activate muscle memory of doing the activity and additionally assists in the fine motor skills required to complete the task. It is a very proactive process that enables caregivers to more readily assist in these daily care activities. Hand-over-hand also empowers the individual with Alzheimer’s or dementia with a sense of control regarding their daily care. The power of touch when caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia provides less resistance from the person when a caregiver is assisting with the activities of daily living. This makes the process less challenging for both the person and the caregiver.

If you are a caregiver, family member or friend of a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia try to be physically demonstrative with them. Ask if you may hold their hand while you talk, offer to apply some lotion or brush their hair. You should give them a hug or two during your visit. You will both be surprised at the moments you will share.

For additional information about massage for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia and for source material for this article follow this link.

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