Caregiving for the Aging Senses Part 2: Touch

A tight embrace from a loved one. The soft warmth of a newborn baby on your chest. The soothing comfort of petting a dog.

Touch is our physical connection to the world, and more importantly, to those with whom we share our lives. When speech, hearing and vision begin to deteriorate with age or illness, touch is a powerful tool for communicating support and presence. Just holding someone’s hand can be the most effective support you offer near end of life.

As the body ages, so do our nerve cells, decreasing our ability to sense touch. These physical changes can manifest in a wide array of symptoms that range from uncomfortable to potentially dangerous. Being aware of how your loved one perceives touch as they age ensures that you are providing them with the care that they need, both emotionally and physically. For example, loss of fine motor skills, dexterity and reflexes mean that it may be more difficult to grasp objects, dial a phone or safely operate a vehicle.

Not feeling the sharpness of a knife or the heat of a stove can result in injury.

CAREGIVER TIP: Provide assistance with and/or close supervision of tasks such as cooking, cleaning or driving. Use your best judgment to determine whether it is safe for your loved one to continue doing these activities independently.

Decreased sensitivity also makes it hard for older adults to tell the difference between common surface types and temperatures. For example, being unable to tell that the shower floor is slippery increases the likelihood of slipping and falling. Lack of temperature awareness can result in burns. With all of these changes in the sense of touch, normal daily activities such as cooking may become dangerous.

CAREGIVER TIP: Ensure that all surfaces are safe for your loved one. This could mean using a rubber mat or stool in the shower, regularly icing walkways during winter, laying down carpet on bare floors or providing shoes and socks with good grip.

Muscle deterioration, poor circulation, fat loss and decreased nerve sensitivity impact the body’s ability to regulate temperature. As our bodies age, hypothermia can develop at temperatures as high as 65 degrees.

CAREGIVER TIP: Pay close attention to the temperature of your loved one’s primary residence. Try to keep it around 70 degrees or above year-round. If they live in an assisted living area where you can’t control the temperature, be sure to provide warm clothing and blankets.

Older adults may be unable to discern a difference in temperature unless it is greater than ten degrees.

In addition, lack of sensitivity to changes in temperature means that fever or hypothermia can progress without the sufferer’s awareness. An older person can develop an advanced infection and not be aware that they are even ill until it is a medical emergency.

CAREGIVER TIP: Pay close attention to your loved one’s body temperature so you quickly detect changes requiring medical intervention.

It is equally important to consider the emotional and psychological impact these changes may have on your loved one. Older adults can suffer from “touch hunger,” which is a feeling of desperation for physical contact. Just as we become hungry for food, we can also feel deprived of our primordial need to connect to another being through touch. Insufficient frequency or intensity of touch (both of which are common as we age) are risk factors for developing touch hunger.

CAREGIVER TIP: Provide plenty of soothing touch to your loved one (hugs, holding hands, foot rubs). Consider bringing in a therapy pet volunteer or a professional masseuse to provide further comfort.