Human Touch and the Elderly and Dying

We have all experienced the gifts of touch:

  • The sense of support we feel when someone puts a hand on our shoulder…
  • The deep connection that occurs when a loved one blesses us with a warm hug…
  • The comfort that is conveyed when a mournful cry is assuaged when a loved one wipes away our tears …

Human TouchMany of these kind gestures convey the exquisite power of touch: it’s no secret that a peck on the cheek or a pat on the back makes us feel very special indeed!

I think we all have an intuitive knowledge of the value of touch. Beyond this knowing, experts have now researched, dissected and categorized the benefits that touch offers. From receiving solace to deepening our relationships with others, touch is now extolled by medical professionals, psychologists and sports therapists. The huge resurgence of massage therapy in the past 25 years attests to our universal acceptance of the value of touch.

Touching The Elderly

The issue of healthy touch is one that is very dear to my heart. I worked in the field of massage therapy for over 15 years: as a practitioner with my own client base and also as the owner of a State Approved Massage School. I taught massage therapy for I0 years and witnessed first-hand the relaxing, satisfying and gentle changes that occur in people’s lives when they became involved in touch therapies.

When I began to work with the elderly, I noticed how rarely many are touched. So often, elderly people live alone and have little contact with the outside world. As their lives slow down or as physical illness takes its toll, many elderly become more and more home bound. Many move to Assisted Living Facilities and, although surrounded by others, rarely receive the simple gift of a hug.

I also became aware that I should not assume that touching someone – even the gesture of a light hug – would be a pleasant experience for them. In situations where there has been physical or sexual abuse, a person may be afraid, reticent or uninterested in acceptable ways of being touched. Many people have grown up without having touch as part of their lives and are not comfortable receiving touch. In one of my caregiving experiences, after I grew close to a particular client, I once greeted her by asking if it was okay to give her a hug. I was pleased with her honesty as she told me, “No, no, I don’t hug. My family doesn’t hug.”

Yet, when touch is welcome, it can communicate what words cannot. Touch can say, “I am here for you.” Touch can communicate connection and solace and kindness. Touch can say, “I love you. You are important to me.” Touch can say, “You are not alone.”

I’d like to share with you a couple ideas I’ve used with wonderful results.

Less if often more. The elderly do not require strong touch. Gentle touch usually suffices. If you offer some form of massage, be aware that some elderly people have thin skin. Certain medications may even make skin susceptible to breaking. Proceed with care.

Offer your hand or arm as support to one who is getting up from a chair or in and out of a car. Even this simple form of contact can be valuable to the psyche.

If you are in a position where you are bathing or showering an elderly loved one, this can be the perfect time for a soapy back rub!

Hand massages or foot massages. Use light natural oil such as grape seed oil.

You can also use hand lotion if no oil is available. Adding a bit of lavender oil can be extremely relaxing. If you have a small tub, fill it with warm water and a couple tablespoons of Epsom salts and have the person soak their hands or felt prior to your massage. The perfect nightcap!

Touching The Dying

If someone is very ill or dying, the power of touch can offer incomparable solace.

Particularly, as a loved one nears death, conversation becomes minimal. There is no more to say. There is no more to do. By simply holding hands with your dying loved one, much love, care and comfort can be communicated.

When my father died, I was in his hospital room. As he began taking his final breaths, I moved to his side and took his hand. A nurse came into the room. She said, “He’s having a hard time. He’s fighting it.” I saw his struggle and it pained me. Holding his hand, I bent over and whispered in his ear, “It’s okay, Dad. You can let go. It’s okay, Dad.” I felt him relax as he became calm and serene and gently slipped away.

Years later, when I was with a friend who was dying, I had a totally different experience. I felt a strong need to remove my touch. I’d been very close to Don for many years. He became terminally ill and during his last days, he was confined to a hospital bed. The last time I saw him, he had succumbed to a coma. I remember clearly feeling that I should not hover near him. I moved to the foot of his bed. Later, I moved a few feet away from the foot of the bed. I felt the need to be there.

And to be there at a distance.

I’d never had this experience before. I shared it with another friend. He validated me by telling me that when his mother was dying, he stayed very near her, physically holding her. At one point, his mother turned to him and said, “Ronnie, you have to let me go. Please let me go.”

Ronnie let go emotionally. And when he physically moved away from her, his mother passed away.

The last moments and days with our loved ones are very intense and some of the most powerful of our lives. There is no “one way” to be in these situations. Trust your instincts and your love. Listen to your heart, follow your instincts, and you will always do what is right.


Photo Credit

Hands – By Kamil Macniak, Dreamstime

First Published At The Inspired Caregiver

Guest Author Bio

Jeannie Thomas
Jeannie ThomasJeannie Thomas is the founder of The Inspired Caregiver.

Like many caregivers, she entered the rooms of caregiving through a series of unplanned events. After an auto accident and unable to perform her work in massage therapy, she offered to assist a neighbor who was dying from bone cancer. His family members lived outside California and they needed 24-hour care for their father. Jeannie felt that it was a privilege to care for this man during the final stage of his life and was with him when he died.

From that first encounter, she became a dedicated caregiver. She discovered that much of what she had learned from massage therapy about “being vs. doing” was very useful in her new work.

Read more about Jeannie Thomas here!

Follow Jeannie: Facebook | LinkedIn


Recent Guest Author Articles:


Please Share Your Thoughts - Leave A Comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.