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Touching Dementia- Using Massage and Touch as an Intervention

The Healing Touch for Those with Dementia




Dementia is a neurodegenerative disease that affects millions of people worldwide. One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with dementia is the inability to communicate effectively, leading to frustration and confusion experienced by both the person with dementia and their caregivers. As a result, touch is often used to address the needs of people with dementia. However, negative experiences of touch are common, causing distress and trauma in those who already struggle to make sense of their surroundings. In this blog post, we will explore the healing power of touch for those with dementia, and how it can be harnessed to improve quality of life and maintain communication.


Dementia progressively affects the nervous system and damages cognitive abilities. At the most advanced stage, individuals can become unresponsive and unable to communicate. However, touch may be one of the few senses that remain, and it is a powerful tool that can calm and soothe those experiencing anxiety, depression, and agitation [1]. Delicate light touching and massages, particularly of the extremities, can be a powerful means of engaging with individuals with dementia while also promoting relaxation. By engaging with individuals with soothing touch, these interactions build upon a foundation of trust and may lead to reduced feelings of unease and misinterpretations of the behavior and surrounding environment.


Touch, through the somatosensory system, generates neural impulses that are dispersed throughout the body and trigger the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and oxytocin, involved in feelings of pleasure, reward, and social bonding [2]. When individuals with dementia experience soothing touch, it promotes relaxation and reduces stress levels, which is often linked to lower levels of aggression. In turn, this can lead to increased calmness and interaction from individuals with dementia, providing an opportunity for improved communication.


Touch also has the potential for greater emotional attachment and engagement. The emotional connections to other people can be sustaining and offer moments of comfort for those with dementia. These positive experiences from touch have been associated with a decrease in feelings of depression and anxiety, and may also show cardiovascular benefits such as lowered blood pressure due to reduced cortisol levels in the body [3]. These moments of emotional attachment and bonding can provide comfort and help reduce the impact of dementia on the patient as well as surrounding family and friends.


Touch interventions, like those used for massage and somatic touch therapies, can be seen as tools that caregivers can use to help improve the overall wellbeing of individuals with dementia [4]. Simple hand-on-shoulder gestures, foot or back massages, and holding hands can have positive physical and emotional effects and provide comfort and attachment. Widely available in caregivers’ toolkits, touch has potential to enhance the existing health care regimen to provide personalized care, enhancing the overall quality of life and communication for those living with dementia and their loved ones.


Dealing with dementia can leave individuals and their caregivers feeling isolated and frustrated, and touch interventions offer a powerful strategy for improving communication and wellbeing. Through touch, individuals with dementia may experience a reduction in stress, aggression, anxiety, and depression. Simultaneously, touch interventions promoting emotional bonding and connecting with caregivers can provide feelings of comfort and attachment. Touch may also be a way to restore and maintain physical contact and emotional connections, providing a tangible interaction that positively impacts physical and mental health. To harness the healing power of touch, caregivers should be trained to understand its potential and how to create safe and meaningful touch strategies that can help individuals with dementia feel valued and understood. Ultimately, understanding the importance of touch in caring for individuals with dementia is a fundamental part of maintaining their quality of life and support of caregivers dealing with this often difficult and misunderstood disease.


References:

[1] Wang Y, Xiong S, Lin J, Zhang Y, Li X. The effects of hand massage on anxiety and depression in patients with dementia. Integrative Medicine Research. 2018;7(1):94-98.

[2] Field T, Diego M, Hernandez-Reif M. Preterm infant massage therapy research: a review. Infant Behavior and Development. 2010;33(2):115-124.

[3] Snyder M, Lindquist R. Caring hand approach: a guide to elder care practice. Springer Publishing Company; 2014.

[4] Hall J, Williams KN, Buckley T. The promise of touch: An exploration of significant touch between older adults and professional caregivers. Journal of Gerontological Nursing. 2016;42(2):38-46.

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