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It’s time we touched on an important issue – touch.

In Aged Care, are we engaging in direct contact as much as we should be?

There are few words that communicate care as well as touch.

When Florence Nightingale pioneered modern nursing massage was prominent component of her training. Since, many other well-researched touch therapies also come highly recommended in a care environment.

However nowadays, with restrictions on time and staff lacking traditional qualifications in Aged Care, massage and other hands on therapies are becoming less common practice. And with the advancement of technology some duties where touch would once have been incidental have been replaced, making touch almost invisible in today’s care programs.

Are we engaging in direct contact as much as we should be?

The touch drugs.

Skin to skin touch releases oxytocin –the ‘feel-good’ hormone. While emitting feelings of positivity, oxytocin also helps generate compassion and feelings of trust.

Touch also releases serotonin and dopamine, both mood stabilisers and connected to stress release and reducing anxiety.

Physiologically there are many known benefits. Extensive studies at The Miami School of Medicine found evidence of pain reduction, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, lowered glucose levels (for diabetes) and improved immune systems in people with cancer.

Touch has been widely known to lower blood pressure, having a quite probable impact on associated blood and heart disease.

So many reasons to touch.

Nonhuman primates spend upwards of 15 per cent of their waking hours grooming one another. Not because they have nothing else to do, because they need it to survive.

In psychologist, Harry Harlow’s studies into infancy and adoption in the 50s he carried out several experiments with monkeys. Among many findings, he showed young monkeys deprived of touch do not grow and develop normally.

Food, water, shelter, while necessary for survival, are not sufficient – to thrive, such creatures need to touch and be touched.

But it’s not just monkey business.

Sports teams are known for ritualistic touch. You see it even during aggressive sports, players seeking out teammates during a game to give them a tap or a slap, for no apparent reason, it can look funny but it’s not in vain.

A 2008 study by US National Basketball Association found the more a team’s players touched each other, the better the team played.

The positive effects of skin-to-skin contact are present everywhere and they certainly don’t diminish at all as we get older. Tho the touch-related sexual desires may lessen in our elderly years, the desire for skin-to-skin contact is still very present and necessary well into old age – particularly with dementia and particularly in care, where connection to loved ones is limited.

“In an aged care home, everyone puts on rubber gloves.”

Says Anne Fairhall, whose husband of 50 years suffers from dementia and requires fulltime care. Anne told Aged Care Online her husband’s need for intimacy is not only from her, but that regular skin to skin contact is a basic requirement for his wellbeing.

While intimacy (and sexuality) is a whole other topic entirely, the discussion is still relevant to non-sexual touch. Dr Barret of the OPAL (Older People And SexuaLity) Institute says that often ‘skin hunger’ is being mistaken for sexual desire.  Citing one example of a male resident behaving very inappropriately toward females, claiming,

“A massage therapist came once a week and he stopped doing what he was doing.”

Perhaps it’s time we took off the gloves and started to look for more opportunities to connect with residents on a physical level. If there’s no time for massage, a simple brush or squeeze over the hand, shoulder or forearm can make a world of difference in your caregiving, and really doesn’t take that much time at all.

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