Senior care: Don’t touch! But why not?

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Elders in senior care have something to teach us about the importance of touch. Have you ever comforted a crying baby?  How did you sooth her?  Chances are you held her close, stroking her back while gently rocking her.  We feel naturally drawn to comfort infants with caring touch.  It is through touch that we convey warmth, safety, love and acceptance.

But what about a very old person in senior care? Or someone with advanced Alzheimer’s disease? Are we as willing to comfort with the same touch we offered the baby?   Most likely not.  It seems that in our society, we distance ourselves from elders and our willingness to touch them diminishes.

Fears Keep us From Reaching Out

We live in a culture that deems aging and ill people as “untouchable” in many ways.  An image of a very old body or a person with a disability is not exactly what our culture identifies as desirable and, therefore, touchable.  Many are fearful of touching an old person, saying things like “I’m afraid I might hurt her.”; “I’m afraid if I touch, it will be considered inappropriate.”; “I don’t know how to touch safely.”

Ashely Montegu, author of Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin tells us that “tactile needs do not seem to change with aging– if anything, they seem to increase.”

There is another cultural fear at work here, too– the fear of aging itself.  To touch a frail elder can be like looking in the mirror, while bringing up in us our personal attitudes and beliefs about our own mortality.  This experience can show us things about ourselves as we witness close-up the very raw human condition of aging. In these moments, we have a choice.  We can turn away from our discomfort or we can embrace the opportunity to learn something about our shared journey of growing older.

Touch is one of our most fundamental human needs. It is a need that remains constant for a lifetime.  Although our situation, age and condition may change the need for human contact does not. The need for human touch increases in the search for reassurance, comfort and connection.

Elders in senior care are often deprived of nurturing touch and meaningful physical closeness. Social withdrawal, depression, and emotional distress are the result.  In senior care, touch is certainly a part of necessary care activities– medical treatments, personal care such as bathing and dressing, or mobility.  However the intention of this touch is to complete the task, the doing.  The attention is on the condition or the disease rather than the person being cared for.  Imagine if the caregiver stopped doing for a moment to simply be present with the individual? This is the gift we can offer.

While serving another in this profound way, we serve ourselves as well.  Our fears may soften and we no longer see ourselves as separate from those we care for, but rather a part of a shared experience of giving and receiving.

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