The stereotype of a hug-giving, cheek-pinching grandmother is likely familiar to most people. With the calming of the global pandemic, many of us have finally regained the ability to provide our elderly relatives with the affection they crave. But why is it that grandparents yearn for physical touch?
Touch is an essential part of the human experience. It can help us feel loved and even heal us. Unfortunately, many older people don’t get the amount of physical touch that they want or need. Facing isolation from friends and family, the passing of a spouse or the challenges that accompany depression and other mental or physical diseases, these individuals may often find themselves deprived of the comfort of even basic human touch.
However difficult these circumstances may be, there are still many important reasons to seek out physical touch as well as simple ways for older people to receive it. As seniors (and their caregivers) make sincere physical contact a priority, they will experience improvements in their physical and mental health. Read on to learn more about these health benefits and learn tips for incorporating physical touch into your regular routine.
Physical benefits of touch
Believe it or not, quality physical touch can actually promote healing within your own body. These effects are primarily due to the connection between touch and cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol damages the disease-fighting cells in your body that protect your immune system. However, studies show that when we experience physical touch, our body’s stress levels reduce. This reduction in cortisol triggers a wide variety of health benefits, including the following:
- Protection from cancer and disease.
- Quicker recovery from sickness.
- Decreased stress.
- Improved nervous and digestive system health.
- Pain relief.
For seniors especially, these health benefits can be extremely important. Since older individuals generally experience multiple health conditions, it’s critical that they take advantage of the physical healing that touch can provide.
Mental and emotional benefits of touch
In addition to physical healing, human touch also can provide seniors with various mental and emotional health benefits. While some of these benefits stem from a reduction in cortisol, others are provided simply through the nonverbal communication that physical touch can provide. Here are some of the mental and emotional benefits of physical contact:
- Feelings of recognition and empathy.
- Connection with others.
- Reduction in anxiety and depression.
Though physical touch can produce these results in people of all ages, these positive feelings are vital for the elderly. “As patients age, they need more opportunities for emotional connection,” said Javier Padilla, admissions director at Cedar Crest Nursing and Rehabilitation, a skilled nursing facility in Sunnyvale, California. “A simple touch on the shoulder or hand can help older adults feel seen, understood and at peace.” Older adults often experience loneliness and depression and may not regularly receive adequate care for these conditions. By making an effort to create positive physical contact for seniors, some of their emotional challenges can be alleviated.
Getting your daily dose of contact
Now that you know how important physical contact is for seniors, you can begin to find ways to incorporate simple opportunities for touch into your daily routine. If you are a caregiver or visitor to an older individual, you can make appointments for them where they will receive some kind of comforting touch. These appointments could include massages, manicures, pedicures or even visits to the hair salon. If you choose, you could also provide this kind of touch yourself by performing one of the aforementioned services or by bathing and lotioning their legs, feet or back.
If you are an older individual, you don’t have to wait for others to create opportunities for physical touch. Communicate with those around you about your needs. Don’t be embarrassed to tell your family, friends and caregivers that you’d like more physical contact — it’s a necessity for your wellbeing.
You can also initiate more contact yourself with the people around you. This touch can be simple, like grasping someone’s hand or touching their arm or back. More often than not, others will accept and reciprocate this contact once you make it known that you enjoy it. You can also schedule your own appointments for massages, manicures, pedicures or hairdressing. By taking the initiative to incorporate more touch into your daily routine, you will be able to get the physical contact your mind and body need.
For older individuals and their caregivers, making physical touch part of the daily routine is essential for seniors’ well-being. As seniors and their caretakers begin to communicate about the senior’s physical needs, initiate more contact and schedule appointments that involve physical touch, you will begin to transform your or your patient’s physical and mental health for the better.
Lillian Sanders is a project manager at Stage Marketing, a full-service content marketing agency based in Provo.
A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.