Power of Touch: Massage Helps People with Dementia

When people think about dementia, they typically think of memory loss. Yet, people with dementia may also experience a decline in all senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. And despite a loss of touch, specific massage techniques can reach people with dementia in the most touching of ways.

The decline in the sense of touch can lead to unique safety challenges, preventing the person from perceiving hot and cold. But research has also revealed a bright spot among the losses: A 2018 study out of Switzerland found that people with dementia could still find comfort in the touch of a human hand. The finding was based on the introduction of hand massage into the regular routine of geriatric patients. The hand massages resulted in a decrease in agitation and stress.

That research could make a big difference for the 6.2 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease. As that number climbs, there’s a greater need than ever for the power of human touch as a supplement to their care routines.

Massage for memory loss

Licensed massage therapist Carole Feintech, whose practice HealBetter, FeelBetter is based in Arlington Heights, travels to the homes of people with dementia. During 30-minute sessions, she uses massage of the hands, feet, and back, while the person remains dressed so they will feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Feintech individualizes the massage by learning some details about the person’s life before the appointment. “I like to talk to the person when I’m working on them, so they don’t feel so lost, and we have a connection with each other that puts them at ease,” she says.

People with memory loss often still remember songs they enjoyed long ago, so Feintech might sing one of their favorites during the massage. “The music touches them mentally and emotionally,” she says. “It changes the whole tone of the session, so they’re relaxed and not frightened of me.”

Feintech uses slow, soothing strokes that relieve anxiety and stress, improve sleep, and decrease sundowning — the time at dusk when people with Alzheimer’s may become agitated and aggressive. Additionally, massage therapy has physiological benefits. It improves blood circulation, stimulates the lymphatic system, and helps to lower high blood pressure.

A compassionate approach

Compassionate Touch — a specific massage technique for people with dementia — is standard for residents in the memory care unit at Avantara Park Ridge. “Our goal is to avoid pharmaceuticals, and Compassionate Touch is a great intervention that does the same thing as medications to control symptoms,” says Erin Levy, administrator at Avantara and a certified Compassionate Touch coach.

At Avantara, Compassionate Touch sessions, which last 10 to 15 minutes, take place three to four times a week. Each resident has an individualized plan depending on their s behavior and comfort level. “We have to get the resident’s consent and make sure to avoid doing it on a day when they are resistant to care,” Levy says.

Residents remain seated and fully clothed for the massage, which includes figure-eight strokes in a rhythmic motion on one side of their back and then the other.

Massage techniques used on the feet relax individuals, ease pain, and reduce verbal aggression and repetitive movements such as grinding teeth and tapping on the table, which are expressions of stress and anxiety. Hand massages decrease the frequency and intensity of people’s resistance to grooming, bathing, and dressing, as well as improve their sleep, Levy says.

And the benefits go both ways. Giving a massage also relaxes the person providing it and strengthens the relationship between the person with dementia and the person caring for them, Levy says.

Touchpoint for family members

While people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia may have lost the words to express themselves and the ability to understand others, the power of the nurturing touch of the human hand remains a way of communicating with them.

Feintech likes to teach caregivers how to massage their loved one’s hands. “I feel that they benefit more when the massage is done by a family member because it reinforces the bond between them, and caregivers don’t feel so helpless in caring for their loved one,” she says.

The basic need for human touch provides a nonverbal way of communicating with people with dementia.

“We’re always hugging babies and children to show them how much we care about them, but as we get older we get less and less of that, but we need it more,” Levy says.

Even without learning special techniques, caregivers can show their love by holding their family member’s hand to encourage or comfort them. Caregivers can touch the person gently on the shoulder to catch or hold their attention.

By using the power of touch, the smallest gesture can convey a vastly meaningful message. Massage techniques specifically for people with dementia offer caregivers a way to stay in touch with their loved one’s needs.