Sep 01, 2019

Mindful Touching as a Means of Comfort

Irene Smith is a Guest Instructor on our Mindful Caregiving Education Program, who also leads Touching Moments courses for caregivers.

I have provided massage for medically frail persons and taught caregivers mindful touching as an integral component to the delivery of everyday caregiving activities for 36 years. I stay amazed at the profoundly positive outcomes of what seems to be the most organic gesture in the caregiving relationship, the act of touching.

Touch is the first sense to develop in our bodies and may be the last sense to fade. Touch is a natural form of communication; as organic a need as food and water, and a natural healing act.

Research from the Touch Research Institute in the Miami School of Medicine proves that the seemingly simple touch of a hand can stabilize heart rate, lower blood pressure and stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain suppressors. Therefore, as caregivers, we have the ability, through focused or mindful touching, to assist in bringing physical comfort to medically frail persons.

Mindful touching requires the caregiver to first become aware of the touch facilitated through daily caregiving activities; feeding, dressing, changing, wound care, turning a patient in bed, brushing hair, swabbing the mouth, making a transfer from bed to a chair, etc. With awareness of the touch component within these activities, one starts to realize that these activities and procedures are touch sessions. These caregiving activities are opportunities for cultivating comfort. They also deepen trust in the caregiving relationship with the integration of mindful touching.

Bringing awareness to the touch aspect within the act of caregiving also includes being aware that the caregiver’s eye contact. Noticing the tone and cadence of the caregiver’s voice is also vital to the touch relationship. Bringing a mindful presence into physical touch can transform the caregiving experience for both the caregivers and the medically frail person.

Physical comfort; however, is only part of the equation. The emotional support that is provided by mindful touching offers a significant contribution to the daily coping strategies in care for the medically frail:

*Touch provides the medically frail person with an opportunity for quiet reflection on one’s personal life experiences, and may also offer the opportunity for the release of feelings associated with these memories.

*Focused or mindful touch may also convey a message of being cared for, being safe, of being worthwhile, and being connected to a greater whole or community, thus creating a sense of belonging. The feelings of safety and of belonging to a greater whole help the medically frail person to develop a more positive relationship with his/her physical body, and in turn, with the process of advancing illness. Mindful touch helps to ease attitudinal symptoms such as anger, depression, and fear that complicate the ability to receive care and contribute to the experience of discomfort and pain.

*Mindful touch also reminds us of our loveliness. One afternoon a client of mine, Susan, called me from a hospital psychiatric unit and asked me if I could come over and give her a foot massage. Susan was in a deep depression. During the massage, I noticed tears running down her face, and a short while later she opened her eyes and reached out, took my hand. “Thank you, Irene,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve loved myself in a very long time.”

*One-on-one social contact provided through mindful touching assists in easing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Alleviating these stressors, which contribute to the experience of discomfort, in conjunction with the stimulation of endorphins elicits mindful touch as a viable partner in pain control.

*In some cases, the medically frail person will not have friends and family present to provide the kind of support that encourages feelings of emotional safety and nurturing. Mindful touch can serve as the missing family link by promoting these feelings.

*Being our first language, and possibly the last sense to fade, mindful touch provides a natural alternative method of communication if the medically frail person loses the ability to utilize verbal language. Mindful touch eases feelings of helplessness for the medically frail person, the family, and the health care team thus providing a path for re-establishing hopeful relationships. 

Within the fabric of caring, touch is the integral thread that weaves the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of the fabric together. Bringing mindfulness to this organic gesture of human contact creates what is truly the essence of comfort care.

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