by Teresa Stecker
A friend of mine visited her childhood pastor, who suffers from progressive Parkinson’s disease. My friend shared how, as a child, she would draw pictures for the pastor and he would always hang them in his office. He always meant a lot to her and she felt a very special bond with him.
Now he’s in a nursing home, crumpled in a wheelchair, unable to even open his eyes due to his frailty. Recently she brought him a picture she had drawn as a child that she found in an old box in her basement. While describing every detail to him, she placed her hand between his. He didn’t verbally respond or open his eyes, but a tear came down his cheek.
Afterward, the pastor’s wife mentioned that people don’t visit him much anymore, because he doesn’t respond. But seeing that teardrop was an affirmation that he is still in there.
Touch is one of the basic needs of life. The craving for touch to communicate affection, comfort and reassurance is present in all of us from the day we are born. As we age, other senses may change and even fade away, but touch remains. And it has the power to reach through the fog, confusion and fear of dementia. A reassuring touch grounds those who are spatially disoriented. It brings people back to their bodies and increases their awareness of present time and space.
As Alzheimer’s progresses, and the ailing are no longer able to communicate verbally, it is essential to find the kind of touch that was meaningful and positive in that person’s life. That may be a hug, a kiss, holding hands, the stroking of hair, or even a simple handshake.
It simply comes down to discovering the touch that brings the most positive response. Touch that shows anger, anxiety and impatience creates tension and agitation. Touch that shows affection, reassurance and comfort brings calm, peace and even self-esteem.
Touch has the power to break through communication barriers, allowing you to express your genuine feelings, like my friend’s touching moment with her pastor.
Emotions that can be communicated through the act of touching:
You are honored.
You are important.
You are valued.
You are not alone.
And we know that you are still there, even when it’s hard for you to make your presence felt.
Written by Teresa Stecker, R.N., who worked as a hospice nurse for 12 years and is currently a pastor in West Liberty, Iowa. This piece was adapted from a chapter she wrote in Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s or Dementia by Jolene Brackey.