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The Healing Power of Touch in Dementia and Alzheimer’s Care

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Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease create moments of disconnection for sufferers and their families. Nearly 6 million Americans, more than 40,000 here in the Hudson Valley, experience this during daily life.

An emerging form of dementia care, called touch therapy, aims to tackle those feelings of isolation head on, and an increasing number of facilities, like Willow Gardens Memory Care at United Hebrew of New Rochelle, are implementing its philosophies into their care strategy.

What is the Healing Power of Touch?

Touch therapy works by combatting the underlying causes of touch deprivation. Studies show that touch deprivation in the elderly and dementia patients may lead to a wide range of negative emotions such as:

  • Feelings of isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Insecurity
  • Decreased sensory awareness

In implementing the strategies of touch therapy, caregivers are introducing elements of compassion that are recognized by dementia patients and are known to create emotional benefits.

Even further, the practice creates bonds between patients and their caretakers. “Our healthcare workers feel close to our residents, often seeing them at their most vulnerable moments. They become very attached. If caregivers observe residents becoming upset, they want to help reduce stress for them because they care about them like they are family,” says Nora O’Brien, DPT, executive director at Willow Gardens Memory Care.

How Does Touch Therapy Help Dementia Patients?

“Incorporating touch into daily care has a calming effect on our residents. We see it in their eyes and their smiles,” says O’Brien.

The positive results have been observable for all of human history, but now more than ever there is evidence of its effectiveness. Studies show that massage can alleviate agitation, promote relaxation, and reduce manifestations of agitation, like wandering, pacing, and resisting, hand massaging decreases agitated behaviors in nursing home residents with mild to moderate dementia.

As a result, human touch has become a widely accepted tactic to improve negative behaviors in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients at nursing homes like Willow Gardens.

“Our staff are trained to understand the challenges and frustrations of a dementia diagnosis. They learn about the benefits of touch and how to use it to mitigate negative behaviors,” explains O’Brien. “Touch is integrated into the personalized care plans that we create for each resident. We review each resident’s personality, history, environment, and other potential behavioral triggers, then establish a plan to minimize negative behaviors.” 

Touch Techniques

What are some ways touch can be implemented into a care strategy? In reality, it involves actions that are already natural for caretakers.

“We care for them like family. That means we’re hugging them, holding their hands, making eye contact, and showing compassion. It makes a difference,” says O’Brien.

At Willow Gardens, the staff find ways to incorporate touch into everyday activities, such as:

  • Giving a gentle massage when helping residents to wash their hair
  • Lightly touching a resident’s arm after helping someone button a shirt
  • Holding our residents and provide relaxing hand massages
  • Incorporating other soft touches throughout the day

“Human touch can also help reduce the use of drugs traditionally used to treat behaviors associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” says O’Brien. “The percentage of our residents receiving antipsychotic drugs to treat cognitive impairment is consistently lower than state and national averages.”

Touch Therapy in the Age of COVID-19

Unfortunately, with the presence of COVID-19 the caretaking industry has had to find ways to adapt while still providing effective care.

“Elderly people are among the most vulnerable to the virus, and we have had to take extra precautions — like closing our doors to visitors — to keep our residents healthy and well,” says Grace Ferri, Chief Marketing Officer, United Hebrew of New Rochelle

Willow Gardens has found many creative ways to reduce feelings of isolation while visitor restrictions remain in place for senior care facilities. They’ve implemented visits for families through windows and taped photos of staff smiling so residents recognize them while wearing masks. But their biggest innovation is something Willow Gardens calls a “happiness bubble,” a plastic sheeting installed between their common room and outdoor patio that allows residents to touch their families.

“Residents can feel the warmth of their daughter’s hand and press their cheek to a grandchild’s face,” explains Ferri. “We believe this will be a powerful tool in enabling the power of touch to continue for families and their loved ones during these challenging times.

“At Willow Gardens, we believe that people with Alzheimer’s and dementia can continue to experience joyful moments; we observed that a kind touch is a powerful way to make those moments happen,” says Ferri.

Grace Ferri, Chief Marketing Officer
United Hebrew of New Rochelle
Uhgc.org | gferri@uhgc.org | 914-632-2804 x1190
391 Pelham Avenue, New Rochelle, NY 10805


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