Touch Deprivation Can Affect Seniors!

Ann Catlin - January 20, 2016 09:48 AM

Touch deprivation in old age is real. It occurs, in part, because of separation from loved ones but mostly because of fear on the part of younger people. Fear of looking at old age up close and personal. I think that if old people are thought of as former people the assumption is they no longer have the same needs as when younger. When it comes to touch this idea really misses the mark!  I’m always on the lookout for other experts who validate my convictions about the impact of massage for our elders. Jane A. Simington, RN, PhD conducted a literature review and her findings were published in Humane Medicine Journal. She reports:

Older persons report that touch conveys fondness, security, closeness, warmth, concern, and encouragement, and makes them feel an increased sense of trust and well-being. They report that touch helps them to develop close, trusting relationships with staff and other residents. As tactile sensitivity decreases, the need to receive expressive touch may increase. Nature can be cruel however, and the elderly person often may have no one to provide this increased touch. The children are gone and the partner has died. One elderly woman put it this way, "Sometimes I hunger to be held. But he is the one who would have held me. He is the one who would have stroked my head. Now there is no one. No comfort."

Massage therapists can be agents of change and have the power to profoundly impact quality of life for older adults by reversing the effects of touch deprivation. Of course there are physical benefits of massage resulting in improved function in activities of daily living. Massage alleviates aches and pains and improves circulation, resulting in greater ease of movement and the ability to perform physical tasks with greater comfort. We are all aware that massage induces a relaxation response, leading to improved sleep quality and feelings of calmness.  Massage increases body awareness reducing the risk of falls.  But focusing only on the physical benefits adds to the medicalization of aging.

Rather than seeing massage as a treatment for ailments let’s look to it as a way to validate the human experience of aging. The gift of caring touch encourages feelings of self-acceptance and worthiness.  But our influence goes even further. By literally reaching out to older adults we demonstrate wholesome attitudes about aging.  Maybe by our own actions we will encourage others to be more willing to touch our elders. Society as a whole stands to gain.  Take care.

Ann is a recognized expert and educator in the field of massage for those in later life stages. She draws upon 30 years’ experience as an occupational therapist and eldercare/hospice massage therapist to guide professionals in rediscovering “touch-as-medicine” in caregiving. She helps develop AGEucate training programs and is a Master Trainer for Compassionate Touch® and Dementia Live™. Originally from the Flint Hills of Kansas, she now lives in Springfield, Missouri.

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