The very first sense we acquire is the sense of touch. We rarely consider how much or how little time we spend providing touch that is not part of the daily routine care for individuals with Alzheimer's or dementia.
Dr. Matthew J. Hertenstein, professor at DePauw University, has conducted studies on the benefits of touch. Some of his research centered on babies and how they respond positively to touch, even when they are in the neonatal unit of the hospital. Similar research on the impact of touch identifies physical benefits such as decreasing blood pressure and pain, improving mood and outlook, and decreasing stress-related cortisol and heart rates.
Touch activates part of the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain and stimulates production of a hormone known as oxytocin, what scientists call the "care and connection" hormone. This reaction in the brain leads to feelings of safety, trust, and a reduction in stress and anxiety. Researchers suggest that touch is truly fundamental to human communications, bonding and health.
For the individual with Alzheimer's or dementia, touch may be the only way of reciprocal communication when that individual becomes nonverbal or at the end stage of the disease. When a gentle caring touch is offered to someone with Alzheimer's or dementia, it can ease anxieties and help increase feelings of general well-being. Even individuals with advanced dementia do not lose the capacity to recognize caring touches. Touch can calm agitated behaviors, reduce agitation, ease physical discomfort and promote sleep. Touch also can make emotional connections to others, particularly because individuals with Alzheimer's or dementia have such difficulty with communication.
There are many ways to provide touch to affected individuals. Hand massages with lotion, pats on the arm or shoulder, hair combing or brushing, or even licensed massage therapy can all help reduce anxiety and fear. However, it is important to keep in mind that "touching" is for the affected individual's well-being and calm, but it does not necessarily mean that the individual will be a willing receiver. Consider the particular culture of that individual, assess their personal nature, and always ask permission to give a hug or offer a hand massage. The act of touch does not have to be anything complicated, like a long, professional massage. Keep it simple and use aromas to accompany the touch therapy. Watch your body language and always give a gentle, reassuring smile.
Questions about Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, director of services at Alzheimer's Services of the Capital Area at email@example.com or visit the the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.