Touch Deprivation and Aging

The following is a quote by the researcher, M. Schwab: “These early morning hours are terribly lonely…that’s when I have such a longing for someone who loves me to be there just to touch and hold me…and to talk to.”

Touch is the most important and neglected of our senses. An individual can survive without one or more of the other senses, but one cannot survive and live in any degree of comfort without the physical and emotional sense that touch is capable of offering.

Complete loss of touch can inevitably lead to a psychotic breakdown, according to the researcher Colton (1993). Touch triggers a variety of responses that affect physiology, emotions, and behavior.

Mythology, magic, folklore, primitive medicine and religion all affirm through the centuries, the importance of touch in healing, communication, and personal power.

The human yearning for physical contact is embedded in our language in such figurative terms as “keep in touch,” “handle with care,” “rubbed the wrong way” and my favorite, “give me some skin.” Touch is an overt expression of closeness, intimacy, and sexuality.

Even though beauty is said to be only skin deep, skin is significant. The wrinkled skin of the old tends to show the beautiful lines of years of hard work and experience. Old hands and old faces tell us much of the bearer’s capacity and intimacy.

The sensations of aging skin that is clean, dry and cologned, linger in the remote memories of many of us who were once held by a grandmother or an elderly loved one. Montague (1990) noted that “tactile hunger” becomes more powerful in old age when other sensuous experiences are diminished and direct sexual expression is often no longer possible or available. Further, he believes the cause of illness may be greatly influenced by the quality of the tactile support received. Colton (1993). cites tactile touch or “touch hunger” as analogous to malnutrition. Malnutrition results from the lack of adequate nutrients for body survival. Touch, he claims, stimulates chemical production in the brain which feeds blood, muscle, tissues, nerve cells, organs and other body structures. Without this stimulation, like nutrients in our food, the individual would be deprived of sustenance and would starve.

Many times we will touch an elderly individual, or even in the capacity as a nurse who is caring for that ill person, in a condescending way (e.g. a pat on the head, a tweak of the toes or a verbal “there there”). This does not convey sincerity for that care.

Of all the health care professionals, the nurse has the most frequent opportunities to provide a gentle reassuring and renewing touch that raises the person’s spirit and a hopeful and healthy attitude.

I too am forever delighted when my grandchildren visit and wrap their arms around me and lovingly call me Zeyda, the Yiddish name for grandfather. That, dear reader, is truly “therapeutic.”

Also, let’s not forget the old married couple who once shared healthy and happy days as they now share the unavoidable limitations of old age and grow even closer together in love and patience. When they exchange a smile, a glance, one can only guess that they still think each other beautiful and loveable.

Before concluding I want the reader to consider the following four points in light of our current cultural climate regarding the concept of touch.

  1. We can’t always assume that the old person wants to be touched.
  2. Hugging may no longer be as popular as we once thought.
  3. Touch in today’s climate now requires “permission.”
  4. Unwanted touching is not always acceptable in today’s environment.
Quotable Quote: “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.” Gandhi
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