Why Touch Matters: 10 Things You Should Know

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR
October 16, 2013

Why Touch Matters: 10 Things You Should Know

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR
October 16, 2013

Whatever your season of life, human touch is an important part of what makes you who you are. It speaks to our relationships, our emotions and can show the world what really matters most in our lives. However, the older we get, the less human touch we might receive as friends and family pass away,and distance and the busyness of life separate us. For those living in nursing homes, the lack of human touch can be debilitating.

I can share some observations and reflections about why touch matters to frail elders, their families, the nursing home facilities, society and you. Whether or not you want to serve this special population as a massage therapist, it's relevant as people in your own life age.

Touch Deprivation

Touch deprivation in old age is real. Studies have shown that frail elderly people are less likely to receive expressive touch. Why? Public attitude about old age (we don't like it) and fear about touching (I might have to face it or I'm afraid I might hurt them). Elders today have less access to family in our mobile society. Extreme demands of caregivers leave little time to offer one-to-one attention. Health care practices have become more high-tech, adding even more distance between health professionals and those they care for. Lack of touch contributes to feelings of isolation, anxiety, pain, loneliness, boredom and helplessness.

Caregiving Touch

Touch in caregiving is not all the same. There are basically two kinds of touch when taking care of people in nursing homes: necessary and non-necessary. Necessary touch occurs during assistance with personal care and medical procedures, along with providing protection and safety. Non-necessary touch is expressive touch offered to show care, concern, reassurance, affection and love.

When compassionate presence is combined with focused touch or massage, the person feels validated and whatever is causing suffering in the moment is relieved. The caregiver is led to right action, whether a simple kindness or to just be there for a moment without an agenda.

Good Medicine

Compassion is good medicine. Brain studies show how compassion affects us biologically. For example, when we feel compassion for another, our heart rate decreases and levels of oxytocin, the "care and connection" hormone, increase. Areas of our brains leading to altruistic actions are stimulated as well. One study shows that only 40 seconds of focused attention from a doctor makes a difference in how the patient feels about their care and confidence in the doctor.

Eldercare Changes

Eldercare is changing. There are efforts taking place to change the culture of long-term care and move away from an institutional model. Today's older adult wants to be cared for at home, if possible. But if facility care is necessary, they prefer it to have a home-like design with private rooms.

They want control in daily routines and access to technology such as Internet access. Older adults today want to be able to participate in the same kinds of recreation activities they did before entering the nursing home. And they want access to complementary therapies like massage and aromatherapy. As a result, more eldercare communities are adding massage therapy to their services.

Touch Matters

Why does touch matter to the person living in a care facility? Studies show touch improves the quality of life for elders physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. Benefits include:

  • Decreased anxiety
  • Improved sleep
  • Lessened physical pain
  • Increased nutrition intake
  • Improved skin condition
  • Increased social interaction
  • Reduced agitated behaviors
  • Enhanced relationship with caregivers

Family Matters

Why does touch matter to a nursing home resident's family? Family members need peace of mind. They need assurance that their loved one is safe, cared for and cared about. Family members also need a way to relate to their loved one, who now may not be able to communicate well because of their condition. Family members need to feel less helpless in the face of a situation that seems out of their control.

Touch can be a bridge of connection for families. Massage therapists can teach family members how to use simple touch and massage techniques to connect with their elder. Facilities that have a massage therapy program enjoy the positive feedback from families when they see their loved one being cared for with a compassionate touch.

Care Facility Staff

Why does touch matter to the staff of a care facility? Touch offers caregivers greater work satisfaction. Long-term-care professionals have very demanding work. They can benefit from receiving massage. Some facilities offer on-site seated massage for staff, and I've been amazed at how much relief these caregivers experience with a 10-minute massage in the middle of their day. They feel appreciated for the work they do.

The direct care staff (for example, nurse assistants) need effective tools to manage challenges without adding to their workload. These caregivers can learn simple touch techniques that studies show actually decrease caregiving challenges. One example is that when a brief hand massage was offered, the elder was more cooperative during personal care. Touch helps care staff to enjoy more of a relationship with those they care for.

Excellent Service

Why does touch matter to the facility as an organization? An eldercare facility needs to provide excellent service. As a business, it must attract new residents and have a marketing edge in a very competitive service industry. It needs to retain skilled staff. The facility's staff need to "think beyond Bingo" to meet the demands of today's older adults for an enriched daily life. And facilities must comply with regulations set by national and state policy-makers. Massage therapy programs contribute to all these organizational needs. As one nursing home administrator put it, "providing massage for our residents puts us a cut above other facilities – going above and beyond what's required."

The Therapist

Personally or professionally, you will be called to the bedside. With touch, your sensitivity to care for others grows and your ability to be a compassionate presence deepens. And because touch has reciprocal benefits, your own stress is eased and you are uplifted while making a difference for someone else.


Why does touch matter to society? Health care in today's high-tech world has become depersonalized. So much attention must be given to the technical aspects of medical care that the person can feel lost in the shuffle. We can bring together the world of medical technology with the human side of care simply by reaching out and offering the gift of a compassionate touch. I love what Dr. Abraham Verghese had to say in a 2013 presentation: "The most important innovation in medicine to come in the next 10 years: the power of the human hand." I couldn't agree more!