Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Importance of Touch

Good morning all.  I've been off line for a few days on vacation in Florida.  I'm posting this blog from the Tampa airport, preparing to come home.  Today's topic is about the importance of touch.

As a caregiver, one of the things that I have observed is that as we age the amount of physical touch in our lives seems to lessen. One of my favorite sights is to see an elderly couple walking down the street holding hands. Unfortunately it is not something I see with any frequency. The issue of lessening touch is compounded when a spouse dies, leaving behind a grieving husband or wife.  We have several clients who are or were married for 60 years or more.  The hole left behind by the loved one's absence is profound.

What is also lost is consistent touch. Sometimes that touch is as simple as a hug or kiss goodnight, intertwining of fingers while sitting together on the sofa, or the comforting feel of the weight of another person beside you in bed at night.  Many times the surviving spouse doesn't feel comfortable inviting another partner into their life--either the grief is too great, there is a sense of betrayal if they have another companion, or they simply choose not to.  This lack of partnership also frequently means a lack of touch.

A few years ago a friend of mine lost his wife of 60+ years.  She had been ill for several years and he had become a full time caregiver--especially in the last year of her life.  About a year later I got to meet his new companion and watch them holding hands in the back seat of the car.  I was so happy to see that he was allowing love and touch back in his life.

In working with clients, I personally feel that they are happier when they have a peaceful, loving, touch-filled life.  I've started to deliberately add more touch into the lives of the clients I work with and I encourage appropriate touch by our other caregivers as well.  Many times this is just a hug or rub on the back; but that's all that's needed.  Touch is healing and grounding.  It lets people know they are connected and cared about.

One of our clients is a 90 year old woman whose husband died many years ago.  She is very disabled with arthritis and other impairments and she has gained a reputation of being impossible to work with (we inherited her from another agency). We have 3 wonderful caregivers supporting her 7 days a week but I end up going in when one of them is not able to make a shift.  What I have learned about her is that she has not had loving care in a long time. To a large extent she has pushed this away but I'm chipping away at her.  This started with direct eye contact and, as she has gained trust with me, I have added in rubbing her back and massaging her legs to help with ongoing leg pain.

I add appropriate touch in whenever I can.  Many times it is just a touch on the shoulder or back as I am passing by on my way to one chore or another.  The change when she is with me has been enormous.

On my first day in working with this client she insisted that I could not wear my boots In her house. I took them off and, after being yelled at for the next 15 minutes I told her that she needed to understand that this yelling was not acceptable.  There was a grudging peace for the next 6+ hours of the shift. Each visit became a little easier but the real changes came when I started using touch to calm her when she began to yell.  Then I started thanking her for a good day together and, it truly was!  On Tuesday I went in to introduce a new caregiver and she was positively peaceful. 

My mother was quite ill last year and one of the things she asked for was to be touched. I had all of her caregivers rub her arms and legs and this care and attention made a huge difference and helped in her recovery.  I have even noticed that I am much more peaceful when I am in a relationship with consistent touch.

What is it about touch that is so important?  For one thing, it raises endorphins levels in the brain, which gives a greater sense of well being.  Touch also causes our brains to release oxytocin and serotonin, which enhance our sense of comfort.

As a caregiver I have to make sure that the touch I use is appropriate--especially when working with a client of the opposite sex: but touch is a great tool and an important part of caregiving.  If you are new to caregiving and want to know what is appropriate, think about the level of touch you would use with your own parent or grandparent and never exceed that level.

That's it for now.  My plane is about to take off so it's time for me to sign off.  More tomorrow.  Have a wonderful Easter Sunday!  Many blessings to you.