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Embracing Connection

Vicki Tapia - February 26, 2018 11:45 AM

Connecting with Touch

Did you know that as we grow older, our sense of touch diminishes? Sure, I knew that eyesight and hearing often decline, along with our sense of smell and taste, but it was news to me that our sense of touch declines as well. According to a recent *article in AARP, by the time we are 80, we’ve only a quarter of the touch receptors we had at 20. Because it’s so gradual, many of us may not even notice this loss. While our sense of touch may lessen, our need for touch certainly doesn’t!

Think of what happens to infants that are left untouched--they often do not survive. All human beings need touch. That includes the elderly. Sadly, something else that often diminishes over time is the opportunity for touch. Spouses die, children and grandchildren are far away and the elderly often find themselves living a singular, mostly “untouched” life.

Both my parents had dementia. Mom had Alzheimer’s and Dad, Parkinson’s-related dementia. They lived nearby me in an Assisted Living Facility and I clearly remember what Mom and especially, Dad, craved whenever I visited. It was touch. Dad particularly loved to be hugged and kissed. Both of them enjoyed holding hands, with me, or with each other (or in Dad’s case, innocently, with any woman who happened to sit down beside him).

The 3 of us regularly relaxed together on the green leather couch in the common room at the ALF. I usually sat quietly between them, gently holding one of their age-spotted hands, hands that seemed so delicate, the skin paper-thin. I daydreamed as we sat and I watched them, wondering what they might be thinking, or, if they were thinking. Perhaps they were daydreaming too. They often stared off into space, sometimes closing their eyes and drifting off. Rarely did either of them speak. We simply soaked up the tranquility and calm delivered by oxytocin, the “love” hormone that’s released from our brains through touch. Touching also reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. No wonder I left the facility on those days feeling more relaxed! Though I didn’t realize at the time just how important touch was, I did have a sense it was somehow therapeutic for us all.

I also vividly recall the last several weeks of Mom’s life. I remember sitting close beside her and sometimes I sang softly or shared family news, but our most comforting connection was touch. Her body, so shrunken and frail, appeared weightless. I felt drawn to gently caress her skin, which had taken on a nearly translucent appearance. My fingers tenderly caressed her back, arms, neck and face, creating an intimacy that merely sitting next to her, talking/singing did not.
If you have elders in your life, please consider the importance and impact of your gentle touch.
Some suggestions to increase opportunities for touch:
1.    Receiving (or giving—it works both ways!) regular massages
2.    Therapy Pets (You know how good it feels to pet your dog? That petting action increases the oxytocin level in both pet and human.)
3.    Self-massage, such as gently rubbing our skin in the shower, can be therapeutic. It stimulates the vagus nerve, increasing our serotonin levels, which is considered our body’s “natural antidepressant.”
4.    Take a dance class or simply turn on the music and dance!

Connecting With Words

Much can be conveyed through touch, a powerful path to connection. But to accomplish this, one needs proximity. When distance separates us, and while they can’t replace the importance of touch, words become another meaningful way to connect.

Traveling down the “rabbit hole of dementia” with my parents, I searched for words. I sought books written from a personal point of view, in hopes of finding caregiving hints and support from someone who had “been there.” I found little to nothing.

Throughout these years of caregiving, I kept a journal detailing the ups and downs of our daily life. Writing served as a coping mechanism for me and eventually emerged as a road map for others, when my diary became the basis of my book, Somebody Stole My Iron: A Family Memoir of Dementia.

Through reviews and personal conversations, people have shared that the memoir’s honesty creates emotions ranging from laughter to tears. When caregivers express appreciation and thank me for offering them insights, along with reassurances they aren’t alone on this challenging and sometimes heartbreaking journey, I feel I have accomplished my intention in writing our family’s story.

Writing has given me a sense of connection with so many others in the world of dementia caregiving, drawing us together through a commonality of experience. The power of these connections reverberates around the world as we share and learn from each other. We are stronger together than alone as we look toward the future, knowing in our hearts there is hope…hope that someday we will live in a world free from the ravages of dementia.
*AARP The Magazine: December 2015/January 2016 “The Power of Touch,” pg. 41

After teaching somewhere around 10,000 mother/baby pairs the art of breastfeeding, Vicki Tapia found her energies redirected to the other end of life, after both parents were diagnosed with dementia. Somebody Stole My Iron: A Family Memoir of Dementia, published in 2014 by Praeclarus Press, was a finalist in the 2015 High Plains Book Awards. She has contributed essays to several anthologies and her second book, Maggie, A Journey of Love, Loss and Survival, is a tribute to the intrepid life of her great-grandmother, written in remembrance and recognition of a time when women had few rights. In addition to her writing, she is actively involved in the administration of the #AlzAuthors blog.

Somebody Stole My Iron: A Family Memoir of Dementia is available on Amazon in paperback or on Kindle. Find Vicki online at  Somebody Stole My Iron Website /
Somebody Stole My Iron Facebook /
Somebody Stole My Iron Twitter

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