Long term care institutions have been badly hit in the pandemic. According to a report, more than 100,000 people in long-term care facilities have died up to Nov 2020 because of coronavirus, which is about 40 percent of all deaths reported in the United States till then.
But an equally devastating outcome for the elderly and infirm has been the loss of touch. The gentle touch that communicates affection, the light pressure that signals encouragement, and above all the friendly pat on the back. Touch can cut across barriers created by mental and physical disabilities and is cited by nursing academia to be a therapeutic tool.
Nursing homes and care facilities have reported an alarming deterioration among many of their residents - in memory, overall faculties and independent functioning. It is as though the living are giving up while the authorities are taking utmost care to keep them safe and well. No holding hands with their family members - if and when they are allowed to visit, no view of the outside world, no community activity within the facility, no touch... the 'no' factor can very well contribute to a patient's ability and spirit to fight a life threatening condition.
Heart rending stories of isolation and longing have been circulating. The 'hug glove' created by a Canandian daughter to be able to touch and hug her mother without exposing her to danger, has gone viral on social media.
Are there creative ways to manage the touch deficit, and keep depression at bay?
Medical professionals are only too aware of what's happening.
Valentina Ogaryan, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at UCLA Health in Los Angeles says "We need to help people get creative about maintaining interactions that provide joy and contact”. “None of these become substitutions for touch, but even just waving to a neighbor to say hello can help you feel less isolated and alone.”
According to a discussion in www.nursingtimes.net: "Some nurses already employ alternative ways of demonstrating compassion, such as verbally rather than through touch, gestures or facial expression. For some, however, witnessing a person’s distress and being unable to relieve it by using therapeutic touch or compassionate gestures may result in low levels of compassion satisfaction and, ultimately, compassion fatigue."
Devita Streva, licensed social worker and psychotherapist, explains“Mirror neurons are activated when we look at others' facial expressions, which evokes a "mirrored" emotion and can make us smile”. “Even just looking at their photo while you talk can enhance the connection.”
An article published in the Journals of Gerontology suggests self applied touch to the palm of one's own hand could be a good thing: it sends beneficial signals to the brain.
Social workers, health workers and families need to take the conversation forward urgently.
The pandemic is not going away tomorrow. We need to heed what Suzy Khimm of NBC News says in her article: "it is unusual to list isolation as an official cause of death".
The science behind touch
"A variety of touches -- from hugs to handshakes, a pat on the arm, back or head, kisses on the cheek, or hand-holding -- can:
- Calm the nervous system
- Boost the immune system
- Activate oxytocin, sometimes called the cuddle hormone, that’s critical for bonding, especially between a mother and child at birth. Research shows oxytocin also affects our general well-being, induces calm, and enhances relationships.
- Reduce the stress hormone cortisol
- Lessen pain, improve healing, and lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Improve mood and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, loneliness, isolation, and more"