On Living and Aging: Therapeutic Touch

by Diana. Lynn Woods, Ph.D.

By 2050, those over 65 years old will comprise about 17 percent of the world’s population. In the United States, someone turns 65 every 9 seconds, and this will continue for the next 19 years. In fact, people over the age of 85 represent the fastest-growing segment of the population. Along with these statistics come corresponding concerns specific to older adults such as dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the most common form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms include restlessness, agitation, wandering and getting lost, and inappropriate and aggressive behaviors that embarrass the person and the family members.

As a nurse clinician during the mid-1980s working in a short-term assessment and treatment (STAT) center for older adults in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, I encountered many AD patients with behavioral symptoms and began to wonder what could be done for them. Drugs often prove ineffective and have numerous deleterious side effects. I recalled a technique I had learned called therapeutic touch (TT), developed by Delores Krieger, Ph.D., RN, a professor at New York University, in collaboration with Dora Kunz, a renowned natural healer in the 1970s. Derived from the laying on of hands, therapeutic touch offers a holistic, evidence-based therapy that incorporates the intentional and compassionate use of touch to promote balance and well-being, using the hands as a focus to facilitate the process.

I wondered if TT might help alleviate behavioral symptoms and produce a calming effect on a person with AD. I applied this technique at the STAT center and found that after just one treatment, my AD patients’ agitated behavior decreased and they became calmer. Since this was an outpatient facility, patients returned to their homes in the evening, frequently a residential facility. A staff member at one of the facilities phoned and asked what I had done for the AD resident. For the first time in a long while, she was smiling appropriately and using her fork by herself. I decided to research this phenomenon further.

I applied to the University of Washington to complete graduate work and a study on the effects of therapeutic touch on agitated behavior in those with AD. A three-group experimental study—using TT, simple touch, and usual care—showed a significant decrease in agitated behavior as a result of therapeutic touch. After obtaining my doctorate, I completed postdoctoral studies at the Center for Aging at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and continued my exploration of therapeutic touch as a treatment for behavioral symptoms for those with AD, in addition to examining the relationship of this treatment to stress hormones, stress reduction, and calming. Academic accomplishment and scientific satisfaction aside, the personal connection moved me deeply. When I treated people, I stood behind them to apply the technique, and frequently after a treatment, the patients would pull my arms around them for a hug. One woman with severe dementia smiled up at me and said, “I feel such ease.” These experiences were unexpected and powerful.

In 2008, a reporter from the Boston Globe asked me to comment on the story of Sol and Rita: “Every day, Sol Rogers asks the aides to make room for him on his wife’s bed. He removes his glasses and puts them on the table next to the door. Slowly, he takes off his shoes and swings his 89-year-old frame onto the tiny twin hospital bed. He cuddles up to Rita, his wife of 61 years, wraps his thin leg over hers, and squeezes her shoulder. He presses his face into hers and kisses her. ‘I love you, Rita, I love you,’ he says. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Rita, his 85-year-old bride with advanced AD.”

Sol later told me that more people should do this. Let the person know that they are loved. People with AD frequently yearn to be touched. Sol’s presence and his physical contact likely decreased stress and anxiety for Rita, improving her quality of life and allowing Sol to continue to communicate with her.

After several experiences, I realized that TT could be taught to family members and caregivers to alleviate some of AD’s distressing symptoms. By using TT, these important people in the AD patient’s life felt connection when other forms of communication proved ineffectual. My current study examines the effect of therapeutic touch on oxytocin, a “bonding” hormone, and on the mutuality between the direct care staff in a residential facility and residents with AD.

Meanwhile, I encourage loved ones and caregivers of those with AD to explore the benefits of therapeutic touch.

Diana. Lynn Woods, Ph.D., is associate professor in the School of Nursing. Woods’ research, outlined in several academic publications and articles, is taught and used internationally (Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway) by professional nurses and the families of those with AD to alleviate behavioral symptoms. dwoods@apu.edu

Originally published in the Summer '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.