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Touch Therapy for Dementia

We learn to give each other joy through touch from a very early age. When we are toddlers we give our parents a hug or kiss and holding their hand is comforting and re-assuring. As we age we hug and kiss our own children, rubbing their bumps and grazes to comfort and reassure them that they will soon be better.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring; all of which have the potential to improve an individual’s day.

Most people never lose the need for human interaction; after all, human beings are, on the whole, sociable creatures. In fact, as we age it may become greater for some who may even need more re-assurance that they are loved.

Due to the loss of a family member or friend, and with the absence of touch, we may become lonely, isolated, further withdrawn and depressed. Touch and a soft caring voice is a fundamental need to most human beings.

In modern day society, many seniors face a wide variety of mental and emotional problems. Also, their bodies often carry the ill-effects of a lifetime of work and stress. The Sense of Touch when given to the hands or feet is a form of communication - physical touch also serves as a way to remain connected, encouraging feelings of tenderness and closeness for those who may not otherwise be able to communicate. In all, there are great benefits to touch therapy for seniors and those living with dementia, as it can help provide relief from fear, anger, grief, headaches, anxiety, agitation, depression and chronic pain.

When I met John he was 74 years of age and had been diagnosed with dementia. He had come to live in residential care after his wife could no longer cope with looking after him at home. Due to her own health issues she was unable to make regular visits to see him.

Communicating with John proved challenging has he did not communicate through speech and only responded to questions by nodding or shaking his head; sometimes it was unclear as to whether he was in pain. His arms, due to contractures, were rigidly held to his chest with his fists tightly clenched with cotton pads pushed into his hands to prevent his nails from breaking through the skin on his palms. John had become isolated, spending most of his time in his bedroom getting more and more depressed, anxious and agitated.

Using a soft voice, I explained in simple words exactly what I was doing at all times. Placing a pillow under his arm to make sure it was in a comfortable position for me to make contact with him. I gently took John’s hand between mine, we sat for a few moments, getting used to the connection between us. I started the light strokes of comforting touch therapy. Gradually I felt John’s arm starting to relax and saw his face becoming less strained.

Over the next few weeks he became less rigid, allowing the cotton pads between the fingers and palms to be put in more easily. Performing touch therapy before dressing him made it much more comfortable for John, and assisting with shaving became much more of a pleasurable experience for him.

For some, truly engaging a loved one with memory impairment in an activity or social event can seem daunting. It is best to first introduce the topic in conversation. Try to match their mood and voice tone with your voice tone, which helps to create better conversation. Also, be sure to speak more slowly and pause after you speak, giving the individual time to process the information and respond. Time, patience and empathy are the ingredients for success, and this approach is evidence of this.

Janet Capstick

Janet, a friend and associate of the Solihull Well Being Clinic, is a Company Director at Timeless Health & Wellbeing. She is also a Senior Consultant at NYR Organic UK, and Registered Trainer at Healthy-Steps. She works to supporting people with chronic illness through the power of touch, whilst also offering education and training of holistic therapies to professional or voluntary carers.

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