Touch as Communication: Connecting with a Care Receiver

How do you feel about being touched? It probably depends on who is touching you, and why. Are you comfortable touching someone who is not family or a close friend? Some people are open to various forms of touch, such as hugs, while others are more reserved in touching or being touched. How do you know the difference? It’s obvious when someone does not want to be touched, almost more than when a person is receptive to touch. The message can come across without that person saying a word.

When a person with dementia is unable to verbalize an unmet, urgent need, their form of communication might be expressed through behaviors such as hitting or crying. How do you communicate with someone who is unable to tell you what they need? The Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) offers ten tips for communicating with a person with dementia. As FCA notes, it’s important to listen with your ears, eyes, and heart, and to respond with affection and reassurance. Touch plays an important role in communicating affection and reassurance, whether through a hug or holding hands.

Touch can also help a person interpret their world and make sense of their surroundings. It is a pathway to connecting with a person with dementia who might be in distress. If a person with dementia suddenly moves into a long-term care facility, trauma can be expected, as Julie Boggess’ wonderful blog earlier this month noted. Touch creates a connection between people in ways that cannot be expressed in words and goes deeper than verbal communication. While touch is a powerful means of communicating, caregivers in a long-term care facility may be reluctant to communicate through touch.

Caregivers may fear their touch being misinterpreted or unwanted. Their feelings may also be related to the fear of getting too close to their care receivers. While these fears can be understood, the use of touch is powerful and meaningful for both care partners. A person who does not want to be touched will communicate that message non-verbally through moving away, stiffening their neck, or closing their posture (e.g., crossing their arms). When appropriate, touch is a form of communication that can transcend words to convey emotion, caring, and compassion to a person who may or may not be able to respond verbally. Through the power of touch, care partners are engaged emotionally, socially, and soulfully. It enables care partners to be fully present and connected in the moment and is much needed in providing person-centered care.

Kathy Dreyer, Ph.D., is the Director of Strategic Projects at AGE-u-cate® Training Institute, which develops and delivers innovative research-based aging and dementia training programs such as Dementia Live® and Compassionate Touch®, for professional and family caregivers; kathy.dreyer@ageucate.com

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