Alzheimer's art

The very first sense we acquire is the sense of touch. Unfortunately, touching is not a usual part of 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 several 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 and trust and a reduction in stress and anxiety. Researchers suggest that touch is truly fundamental to human communications, bonding and health.

For those with Alzheimer's or dementia, touch may be the only way of reciprocal communication when that person 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 can make emotional connections to others, particularly because those 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 licensed massage therapy can all help reduce anxiety and fear.

However, it is important to keep in mind that while touch is for the affected individual's well-being and calm, it does not necessarily mean that person will be a willing receiver. Consider the culture of that individual, assess his or her 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 related disorders can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, owner of Dana Territo Consulting, LLC, at thememorywhisperer@gmail.com.