Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Importance of Touch Persists through the Lifespan

Photo by Rosie O'Beirne
A couple of weeks ago, I visited a friend of mine who is currently residing in a skilled nursing home. Upon arrival, I discovered that she had a large bruise around her right temple and that she couldn't hear.  It was apparent that she had fallen.   Understandably, she was also a little bit disoriented and very emotional.

I first tried gesturing and encouraging her to read my lips. Nope. I tried to write messages to her. However, she was having trouble focusing and decoding even short, simple sentences that I wrote in large block letters using a black felt-tip pen. Finally, she said, "Give me a hug!"

Well, why didn't I think of offering a comforting touch as soon as I saw that she had suffered a fall?  And why did I still not think of it when my attempts to communicate by talking and then by writing were obviously failing?

The value of expressive touch is an aspect of human relationships often neglected because of attention to other needs: medical needs and financial needs can crowd out attention to touch as can spiritual needs and even emotional needs as well.  In other words, friends, relatives and caretakers might spend a lot of time talking to older adult, helping them with paperwork, assisting with household chores, and praying with them. However, members of an older adult's support system may not very often hold their hands, hug them, rub their shoulders, or give a foot massage.

Expressive touch refers to touch that expresses emotional connection. It contrast with functional touch, which is more pragmatic. For example, giving someone a hug is expressive.  Holding a person across the chest as part of a transfer is functional.  In a dissertation on the effects of touch on those with Alzheimer's Disorder, Belgrave (2006) divides touch into these two broad categories with slightly different labels:
Protective touch, expressive touch, caring touch, non-necessary touch, non-procedural touch and comforting touch are all considered forms of positive affect touch. Functional touch, instrumental touch, necessary touch, and procedural touch are all considered forms of task related touch. (Emphasis added.)
Because nursing often takes a fairly holistic view of patients' needs, this field has a number of scholarly articles and professional articles on the value of touch.
  • Nursing faculty member Simington (2011) describes the power of touch to bolster emotional, physical and spiritual needs.  
  • Marks (2005), who has an MSM and body-centered psychotherapist has done a lot of work to connect the physical and the spiritual, states the value of touch to offering practical guidelines for enacting touch. Her blog post describes the value of touch across the lifespan, as her examples for every age group demonstrate.  
  • The professional journal Nursing Older People provides a discussion in 2004 of the value of touch for people with dementia, but many of these principles can be generalized to all older adults or even to people throughout the lifespan. 
Unfortunately, encouraging formal caregivers to convey emotion with touch can be a complicated task. Some   people have trauma associated with touch and might interpret non-essential touch as aggression. Also, gender complicates touch, and some studies show that older men suffer more touch deprivation than older women.

One simple and relatively conflict free form of touch can be delivered through a hand massage.  Asking someone, "Would you like some hand lotion?" can be a nonthreatening way to touch a person's hand in order to convey human warmth while also providing a little moisture for well-worn hands. 

Expressing care through physical touch might offer its challenges, but the rewards for giver and receiver can be powerful. 


  1. Hi,
    Thanks for posting such a wonderful post on depression and touch therapy.I am in total agreement with depression is such a harmful disease which in general people took lightly and are not aware of the long term side effects that depression can cause.
    Generally it is the tendency of the people they are little hesitant to visit the psychiatrist and take it as a life phase which will pass on with the time but they are unaware of the fact that in which mud they are getting into.

    I think the best possible solution is to make people aware of the symptoms of this disease and same education should be given to the family members of the patient ,because their cooperation is needed in order to cure the person.

  2. Hi Karen. I work in the home care and assisted living industry in New Hampshire and this really hit home for me. Such a great post, thanks for sharing!