“I was touched by your thoughtfulness.”
“It was a touching movie.”
“Do Not Touch the Exhibit!”
The importance of touch is shown by how it permeates our language and by efforts at controlling how and what we touch in our daily lives. This month Elder Voice discusses touch and the elderly.
The importance of touch to a human being is also reflected in the design of our bodies. Skin is our largest sensory organ. It covers the entire body and has a surface area of around two square metres. Thus, every part of our body is able to gather information via touch.
Touch is a primary method we use to interact with our environment. When we want to know what something is like we will touch it–unless we are not told not to! While sight and sound are also important data collectors, the information we receive from the experience of touch tells us even more about our environment and our relationships. Touch can reassure us or threaten us. It can tell us whether we are loved or unimportant; whether we are safe or whether we need to be ready to fight or flee.
In addition to being an acute and long lasting sensory tool, touch can be healing. We’ve all felt the difference of a hand held in a moment of fear, or an embrace during crisis. We know the emotional benefits, but touch has physical benefits as well. It has been shown that with gentle touch, blood pressure will decrease and the immune system will function better.
When we are not touched there is an absence of interaction and stimulation with our environment. Sound, taste, and sight can only partially replace that.We may experience this gap as isolation and detachment from the world around us and feel rejected or un-valued. There is only a short jump from there to anger, aggression, withdrawal or depression.
As we age, touch may become even more important to us. Our vision, hearing, and even our sense of taste may decline, but touch will remain. Cognitive abilities may become impaired due to dementia or the ability to use language may decrease, but we will automatically react to pain, to texture, and forms of touch.
Just at the time when being touched is becoming more important, many of us experience less touching from another human being. We may no longer have a partner, so do not experience sexual touch or someone holding our hand or putting their arms around us. We are not holding our children and our our grandchildren are grown. Our friends may be gone or we may be less mobile so we don’t have the hug of hello, the kiss of goodbye.If we are in a nursing home, the only reassuring warmth we may receive is from a bath once a week.
Older people who are dependent on care providers may receive touch that does not say you are loved and valued. Instead they may experience rough touch from someone who is in a hurry, frustrated, or trying to control them or stop behaviour.
Touch tells a truth that words can belie. A gentle touch is more believable than a smile.A rough and hurried touch tells us more than a mission statement posted on a wall or written into a residents handbook.
Touch has become increasingly restricted in our society via both laws and social rules. We are increasingly aware of how touch can be misinterpreted or sexualized. While the need for caution is understandable, in our state of heightened anxiety about touching, we have lost something very important. We have drawn back from touching each other.
Those of us who are involved with older people, either as caregivers or simple as friends and family members need to remember the importance of touch in our interactions with them.
Consider the ways in which you might use touch on a daily basis to demonstrate care and respect, to help someone who is feeling lonely to feel connected, or to help calm someone who is feeling frightened or confused. It may be a hand on the shoulder as we put down a plate. It may be holding their hand while we visit. It could be a gentle and long bath or hair wash that massages a scalp. Maybe a shoulder or hand massage, or a special combing of hair. Maybe a foot massage or warm foot bath. We can touch someone playfully on the nose, we can do activities that permit touch such as dancing or holding hands or passing things from one person to another.
The touching we give someone tell them so much in so short a time. The lack of touching tells them something too. The best thing about gentle and appropriate touch is that it doesn’t require a doctor’s degree, a prescription, or money in the bank. All it requires is awareness, a desire to care and a moment of thought.