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A hug is duct tape for the soul.


From Evansville Courier & Press:

It has been more than 60 years since the Harlow studies demonstrated the key role of touch in the normal development of baby rhesus monkeys. Since then, there has been a steady parade of studies supporting the important role of touch in the development of people of all ages. Touch has both psychological and physiological impact and we need touch to develop normally throughout the life cycle.

While other important senses such as vision and hearing usually decline as a normal part of the aging process, touch remains a viable and important sense. Just as the importance of touch increases, many seniors become more seriously touch deprived. In fact, they experience less touch than any other age group.

Touch appears to be such a simple behavior; why then are so many seniors touch deprived? Ours is a culture that is ambivalent toward seniors. On one hand, growing old is considered to be a significant achievement. On the other hand, judging from our popular culture, looking old is not desirable. We go to great lengths to keep from appearing old. This attitude that old is not attractive is probably one of the major reasons for touch deprivation in seniors.

Not all seniors desire to be touched, and we need to be sensitive to this preference. While touch reassures and conveys concern and love, it enters into the senior's private space. In particular, touch between men is, well, a touchy situation. Touch may be a symbol of status or power and that defeats the positive emotional impact of touch. Often letting seniors be the initiators of touch can be the most important clue to their needs and desires.

Being careful with touch is also appropriate for other reasons. Many of these deprived seniors are in their late 70s and 80s. By this time, skin-related changes affect the relationship between touch and seniors. Much of the fatty tissue that pads the skin is gone. Our skin has become thin and transparent and is much more vulnerable to injury. We need to be more careful that touch does not break or bruise the skin. Even though a hand massage may be therapeutic, massages need to be more carefully implemented since arthritis is often an issue.

Seniors who live alone in their homes or in assisted living facilities and nursing homes are most likely to be touch deprived. These folks live in situations that do not naturally invite hugs. Relatives and friends, whose touch is most likely to be welcomed, can consider making hugs and touches on the arms, shoulders or hands part of their visits, but they should be gentle.

The folks who care for our seniors in institutional settings have a major role in implementing touch. Not only do they supplement touch by family and friends, they may actually replace it. Often institutionalized seniors have no relatives or friends to see them on a regular basis. Staff members are in a key position to implement touch on a daily basis. Unlike other medical procedures, touch costs nothing and requires little effort, yet the payoff is enormous.

Finally, therapeutic pets are an important source of touch. There is nothing like a gentle dog to bring a smile to the face of a resident. Therapy dogs should be much more widely used in institutions because their touch, or lick as the case may be, provides what seniors really need, unconditional affection.

Link to Evansville Courier & Press.

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