Integrating Touch Into Our Daily Interactions

A while back I was walking along, my mind ruminating on negative thoughts and worries. I found myself getting a little stressed out, tensing up and getting even more worried. And then, I suddenly felt better. A load had been lifted and perspective returned. The cause of this relief? My 6-year-old ran up to walk with me, reached up and held my hand (he was singing a little too as I recall). Poof – the negative thoughts went right out of my head. I relaxed and began enjoying the walk and the things around me. Something about that simple touch gave me just what I needed. I am very lucky in this way. I am a jungle gym, a preferred seat and a transportation device for my young son. Occasionally his older sister might throw a hug my way and his older brother might too, in the right setting. I have a loving wife and good friends that provide me with many opportunities to give and receive some form of touch or another.

Not everyone is this fortunate. Some shy away from touch and deprive themselves of the connection that I feel is as basic a human need as we have. Some, like far too many elders living in nursing homes, find themselves longing for positive human touch that comes too infrequently. This is especially true for the very frail, as many people fear causing pain by touching them, not knowing how the lack of touch hurts in a different way. It is sad to think about how many people are deprived of this basic human need when all the ingredients for meeting it are literally at our fingertips.

Photo by Samantha Whitefeather
Photo by Samantha Whitefeather

But wait, you might say, some people have had horrible experiences in their lives with inappropriate and unwanted touch. Some simply avoid contact with others out of fear of rejection or other reasons. Are these folks best just left alone? In “The Importance of Touch” by Beverley Anne Star and Sara Joy David, Ph.D.,  there is some good info on how the benefits of positive touch can be relearned. The authors write, “All such touch must be exchanged in a manner that respects the boundaries of the persons receiving and giving the touch. In a touch-phobic society, where many individuals are unaccustomed to physical contact, it may take a while for touch to feel welcome and natural…… However, just as we can reclaim our taste buds – jaded by excess use of spices, sauces, and other stimulants – we can re-educate our nerve endings to enjoy gentle, appropriate touch.”

They make another point that is particularly applicable to those living in nursing homes with overhead paging, call lights and chair alarms: “The body registers noise pollution as assaultive. The automatic tightening of muscles to armor (protect) and defend themselves produces sensations that range from mild discomfort to extreme pain. Gentle, appropriate touch can help the body to relax without more intrusive intervention. Caring touch can restore equilibrium and balance.”

If we want people, especially those in nursing homes, to truly be well, we must work to meet the basic need for human touch. Here are some ways we can make it happen:

  • Dancing (Picture that dining aide who jumps out there with a resident when a good song comes on, holding hands while moving to the music.)
  • Holding hands to say the prayer before a meal
  • Massage sessions (Research this and use professional trained staff. Often our elders need light touch massage and not deep tissue massage.)
  • Hugs (One therapist cited in the article mentioned above suggests fitting in 12 hugs per day for everyone.)
  • Simple handshakes when greeting someone
  • A hand on the shoulder when talking

Sometimes I see alternatives to human touch being used – a dog or cat to pet, soft stuffed animals, etc. – but as the article states: “There is no substitute for the gentle, loving touch of someone who cares.”

What are your thoughts? What ideas do you have to make positive touch happen more? How do we assure the frailest among us are not deprived of touch?

Glenn Blacklock has a Master of Arts in Leisure Studies with emphasis in Therapeutic Recreation. As Administrator of Big Meadows Nursing Home he led the organization through their culture change journey. Glenn is the creator of the Action Pact workshop Unlock the Life Within and, in his current role with Action Pact, has guided nursing homes across the country through their transformation to households.