Touch Is the Language of Compassion

By Carol Combs, MSW, Oxford’s Memory Care Coordinator

Everyone needs tender loving care, and someone with dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease is no exception. In fact, because dementia robs people of language, non-verbal communication becomes even more important. Non- verbal communication is critical when dealing with dementia, and touch is a powerful way to connect with someone who is losing other avenues to communicate.

Tactile stimulation can help when language is failing. Anything individuals can touch, feel or manipulate with their hands helps fill the void left with loss of language. It is actually the brain that “feels”—so tactile stimulation is brain stimulation.

People with dementia don’t lose the capacity for human emotion or recognition of a caring touch, even in the late stages of the disease. A hug, handshake, pat on the arm, hand lotion massage or stroke of the hair can relay feelings of compassion and care. And of course, a smile is a universally understood expression!

Studies have identified the physical benefits of touch, including: lowering blood pressure, decreasing pain and heart rate, improving mood and lowering stress. Touch can also benefit those with dementia by calming them. Massaging the hands or handholding can reduce agitation; help ease the feelings of isolation, loneliness and boredom; and, encourage feelings of well-being.

We need to respect a person’s preferences for physical touch and explore ways to make contact that are comfortable to the individual. If someone is highly agitated, use caution in your approach, as the individual may not accept you entering his/her private space. However, while we do need to be respectful of someone’s comfort level, that should not stop us from finding ways to nurture those in our care.

“Love is not a memory—it’s a feeling in the heart and soul, never to be forgotten. This disease can take away almost everything, but not the love,” wrote Michele DeSocio in Living Proof that Alzheimer’s Can’t Steal Love.

Oxford Health Care offers numerous home care programs that can provide you the help, support and relief you need so you may enjoy time with your loved one and continue to care for them at home. If you have questions, our Care Coordinators will be happy to assist you.

Sources: Esther Heerema MSW, alzheimers.about.com, American Massage Therapy Association