Touch is a ‘magical gift’

Amongst the many missing things in caregiving, the lack of touch is the easiest to remedy

We all love touch. So why are people in need of it the most often denied it? Old people and injured people often lie in their beds or live in rehabilitation environments: places where touch is rare.

Things can be even worse if the patient is sick. Everyone keeps their distance as if cancer or heart disease will jump across the room and afflict the visitor. The awkward hospital gown, wires attached everywhere, and beeping machine monitors make the patient feel like a specimen in a laboratory, while the families react with fear and faint gratitude that they are not the ones in this imprisoned state.

Here is how to change that.

If you have an old person in your life, touch them. Hold their hand whenever you can. Talk to them while massaging their neck, their feet, their fingers. Don’t let your voice be their only connection with you.

If you know someone who is injured or sick, observe what happens in the hospital or nursing home, or even in their own home. Nurses come in with clipboards (or, now, computers), the only form of touch being a thermometer stuck into their patient’s ear. The doctors make their rounds standing at the side or foot of the bed, possibly with a stethoscope pressed to their patient’s chest. The orderlies, food delivery people, and everyone else drifts in and out with no physical contact at all.

Even the physical therapists may forget their most basic training—and while they may get the patient up and walking with crutches, they avoid the manual soft tissue massage that separates great physical therapists from the rest.

For the injured young or old, visiting a physical therapist who spends most of their time with hands-on manipulation of the injured tissues—combined with guided rehabilitation exercise—leads to more rapid recovery than any “modality” of ultrasound, laser, hot packs or ice could ever achieve.

On a related note, “tactile queuing” is used to help a person focus on a body part they may be ignoring. Tapping the quadriceps and asking the patient to contract it awakens the brain-body connection. Deeply massaging the legs can mobilize pooling fluids back to the central core and reawaken the lymphatic system. Head rubs lower stress, and affection, and any form of touching—while looking the person in the eyes with warmth and love—restores their sense of humanity.

Amongst the many missing things in caregiving, the lack of touch is the easiest to remedy. Whether it is for love, affection, therapy, or strengthening, the touch of a family member or professional is a magical gift.

The reason casts have been largely abandoned in our practice is that they prevent touch to the injured part. So why treat the elderly, sick, and injured as if they are wearing a “virtual cast,” when their skin is so desperate for contact with yours?

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