The Power of Touch: The Correlation between Human Contact and Alzheimer's Patients
Saturday, 09 March 2019

There is no doubt that the power of touch is therapeutic and relaxing but can it also help Alzheimer's patients? Keep reading to find out.

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's is a difficult and confusing task. Because there's no cure for the disease, treatments focus on keeping quality of life as high as possible.

Despite our best efforts, sometimes it can feel like none of the care we're providing makes any real difference.

But there's one intervention that can make a world of difference to someone with Alzheimer's—and it's so simple, you can provide it yourself. What is it?
Meaningful, supportive touch.

To find out more about the power of touch and how it can make a difference in the life of Alzheimer's patients, keep reading.

The Power of Touch in Alzheimer's Care

The power of human touch has been well documented in research. Touch is the first sense to develop in the womb and the first language we learn as infants. One famous study even found that orphaned infants who weren't regularly cuddled developed failure to thrive.

Despite what some may think, touch doesn't become any less powerful as we grow older. In fact, it becomes more important than ever when our other forms of communication begin to break down. Here are a few of the ways that the healing power of touch can be of particular benefit to people suffering from Alzheimer's.

Touch Provides Documented Health Benefits

A hug from someone you love does more than put you in a good mood—it may actually help protect you from infection. An experiment from Carnegie Mellon University investigated the effectiveness of hugging at preventing sickness in stressed individuals.

The researchers chose hugs over other forms of touch because they're a sign of an intimate, supportive relationship. They found that participants who had been hugged before being exposed to a cold virus had a reduced risk of infection.

Other health benefits associated with touch include:
  • Improved pain
  • Lowered heart rates
  • Regulation of stress hormones
  • Decreased blood pressure
While these benefits are all significant, the value of touch goes beyond the physical.

Touch Opens Up Communication Channels

One of the reasons that Alzheimer's disease is so devastating is that it breaks down our ability to connect with others. As memories and language abilities fade, traditional communication becomes more and more difficult.

While touch can't completely replace the value of conversation, it is a powerful communication tool. A research study out of DePauw University found that touch is an effective way to communicate feelings. Participants in the experiments were instructed to touch the arms of blindfolded strangers in a way that conveyed a specific emotion.

Surprisingly, blindfolded participants were able to identify eight different emotions. The emotions ranged from disgust and anger to love and compassion. Some participants were able to do so with almost 70% accuracy.

These findings go to show that a loving, compassionate touch can communicate more than you might think.

Touch Can Ease Depression and Anxiety

People fighting a battle with Alzheimer's go through a long series of major lifestyle changes. They may have to give up control of tasks that once seemed simple and rely on others to meet their basic needs. These changes can result in significant feelings of anxiety and depression.
Someone in the early stages of Alzheimer's may feel a deep sense of loss for the life they once had. Those in later stages may become fearful of the confusing world around them. In fact, scientists believe the disease makes the brain itself hyper-responsive to stress.

One study looked into the connection between regular therapeutic touch and agitated behaviors in Alzheimer's patients. They found that patients who received therapeutic touch for as few as 5-7 minutes twice daily were significantly less agitated after three days than patients who did not.

This may be because meaningful touch, such as hugs, releases oxytocin. This hormone is involved in feelings of happiness, trust, and well-being. Massage, specifically, has also been shown to reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body.

Providing Touch beyond Basic Care

There are many aspects of Alzheimer's care that involve physical touch. Getting dressed, tying shoes, and taking care of general hygiene are a few examples. But going above and beyond the essentials to provide meaningful touch is important to foster a stronger connection.
Here are some ways to do just that:
  • Gentle hugs: hugs from loved ones can lower stress hormones and improve mood.
  • Massage: try a hand or foot massage yourself, or see a licensed masseuse for a full-body treatment.
  • Hand contact: handshakes, high-fives, and holding hands are great ways to connect without words.
  • Touch on the arm: whether you're guiding them while walking or just sitting together, a gentle touch on their forearm or shoulder communicates compassion.
  • Beauty treatments: manicures, pedicures, and hair styling are good ways to incorporate meaningful touch into a fun activity.
These are only a few of the ways to incorporate meaningful touch into your interactions. You may very well find others that resonate with your loved one.

Be Mindful of Boundaries

It's always important to get consent for touch, but it's especially vital when dementia is involved. Clear communication helps to make sure that the contact is welcomed.

Alzheimer's patients often find themselves confused and unable to correctly interpret their surroundings. With this in mind, make sure that you're respectful of your loved one's boundaries and preferences. To avoid any misunderstandings or concerns about abuse, it's best to practice supportive touch in the presence of others.

If your loved one is in assisted living, talk with their caregivers about making positive touch part of their daily routine. This service can make a huge difference in helping them to feel loved and cared for even when you're not around.

Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer's

The fading of language and memory makes it difficult to interact with someone who has Alzheimer's. Thankfully, the power of touch can cross those boundaries to create meaningful connections once again.

If you're considering your options for long-term Alzheimer's care, take a look at our post on preparing to move your loved one into a nursing home.
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