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Sharing the power of touch

A theologian once said, "Those gifted with a greater sense of touch are also blessed with a deeper knowledge of life."

Certainly at the heart of social bonding is the "touch" that enhances our natural interconnectedness and gives us the hope and peace we search for.

I was reminded of this connectedness while visiting some elders this past month. I realized how "touch-starved" our elders are as they try to live independently in their homes. I have the opportunity to visit many elders and am always touched myself by their reactions.

I stopped to spend some time with Bob and Mabel Burke of Clearwater; Bob is Mabel's caregiver. I sat down beside her and started to stroke her arm, shoulder and forehead. She always knows I'm there although I say very little. After about 10 minutes I stopped and got up to leave. Mabel opened her eyes and said, "You make me feel so special, dear. Thank you for coming to visit me." It again demonstrated that when visiting, we really don't have to worry about saying the right thing. Sometimes, words are unnecessary.

I always give a hug to Bob; this opens the door for him to share what he's feeling and how things are going. Sometimes, caregivers feel unlovable also. And sometimes, as caregivers, we get so immersed in taking care of basic needs that we forget there is another dimension of caring. Being present to loved ones and all older people through the gift of touch assures them you're there with and for them and you understand.

I continued visiting a number of other older friends and made sure I spent time touching them. It was rewarding to experience the different ways people responded. Touch became more meaningful than words, and I realized how much was being said. The visits turned out to be close encounters and a most positive, personal interaction.

With millions of nerve endings, skin is our largest organ. It needs constant nourishment in the form of touch. Without this stimulation of the skin, elderly people may often experience a loneliness and longing and view themselves as having no value. This leads to "touch deprivation" or "skin hunger" and can cause physical and emotional isolation; then the older person can become depressed and ill.

If we are caregivers, other family members, friends, neighbors or volunteer visitors, we need to know that touch conveys warmth, acceptance, reassurance and understanding and can help restore feelings of self-worth. Older people grow more positive and more relaxed and can tolerate the changes going on around them better. They are more at peace.

I realize touching is not easy for some people, especially if a person was raised with no outward show of affection. Sometimes, adult children are involved with a critical and demanding parent, and it's not easy to reach out when there is tension. But through the touch, the most powerful non-verbal communication, barriers are broken down and relationships are healed. Your loved one needs you to reach out, and you need it also.

Putting your arm around older people, rubbing their arm or just holding their hand is a life-giving act. I know from personal experience with family members that a hug worked miracles and dispelled fear and agitation many times.

Some practical ways to "stay in touch" are to give a foot massage with lotion, give a back rub or massage the person's neck and shoulders, gently brush their hair and, most of all, give plenty of hugs.

Touching is the key ingredient to elders' being content.

Remember, caregivers, make the present moment count!

_ Ethel M. Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters Inc., a non-profit network for family caregivers and elder care. You can write to her c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.