The truth behind touch therapy for dementia patients.

Around 5 million adults, at least age 65, have dementia.

On the 18th March 2018 my Grandma, 75 years of age, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It wasn’t sudden, I always knew that things were not quite right as she was slowly forgetting what would have once been an easy task, but the diagnosis confirmed the terrible symptoms that lay upon her.

Tests were provided focusing on attention and problem solving which aided an insight into my Grandma’s mind. Once concern arose through these results an MRI was carried out to determine an accurate diagnosis.

Three years later, in 2021, her symptoms went from mild to moderate and the unknown has now become a frequent battle she fights with. It has been a really big struggle finding suitable daycare and the right sort of treatment when it comes to her dementia. 

Personally, we (as a family) felt we could manage everything ourselves without any support systems such as care homes and nurses. However, one thing we do constantly use is touch therapy to bring her back to reality when her judgement gets too overwhelming to deal with. 

 

The saddest thing; explaining dementia.

Dementia does not classify as a fixed disease but it is a general term used for the struggles of doing everyday tasks due to forgetting and confusion. It stands in the way of clear thinking, doing and acting upon certain situations which makes everyday engagement a lot harder than it should be for an individual. According to CDC.Gov, there is an evaluation of around 5 million adults with dementia aged at least 65 with the estimation that there will be nearly 14 million by 2060. 

Many symptoms contribute to the idea of dementia. These include memory loss, a decreased attention span, changes in vision and overall confusion. Many studies show that there are various things that contribute to dementia. There is the obvious inevitable occurrence that age is a factor towards carrying symptoms. Other aspects that affect the likelihood of dementia are family history, bad heart health, ethnicity and brain injury.

Tests on cognitive abilities are performed during the process of diagnosing dementia. This focuses on different abilities that use thinking, remembering and doing. As well as this physical exams can also get carried out which include blood tests and scans. 

Dementia is a lot more common than many think and it impacts the majority of us; even if we aren’t directly linked to having the symptoms. A survey I constructed through social media showed that 10/18 people know of someone close to who has dementia. 56%  of the people agreed that watching their loved ones struggle with the symptoms, affect them significantly. 

 

The unsettling truth.

Five million adults have dementia in the UK – Affinity May investigates how touch therapy could transform their quality of life.

Abby Lundstrom, a Plymouth university student who studies paramedicine, explained “most of my calls when I am on the job are being pulled towards confused dementia patients that have ended up somewhere they shouldn’t be because of confusion. It is the saddest thing.”

 

The power of touch.

Touch therapy is the idea of using pseudoscientific energy as a means to reduce pain, anxiety and any overwhelming feelings. These are all feelings that dementia patients battle with constantly. During the practice of touch therapy, the doctor would ‘manipulate’ the energy flow by using their hands and directing it throughout the patient’s body.

Sarah Vosper, a self-employed touch therapist, described the treatment as “an intrinsic process for quick healing.”

Dementia patients can use touch therapy to reduce anxiety and aid with getting better sleep. It most certainly isn’t a cure but there is direct evidence that this treatment improves the mental wellbeing of dementia patients.

Sarah explains the start of her session is used to allow her patients to feel comfortable with their surroundings and get familiar with the room they are in. “This allows them to open up and fully connect with the energy around them, I make sure they know it is a safe space with only positive vibes.” 

Many practitioners also use this activity at the beginning to ensure their patients have a clear mind. The doctors will center and ground the patient, using breathing techniques to ensure the formation of calm energy. 

In a session that is used for physical and chronic pain, practitioners will focus on that specific spot on the body; however, for dementia patients, all the focus is put onto their mental wellbeing. 

Human touch plays a significant role for people with dementia, and this is a form of touch therapy treatment that most people use on their loved ones without even knowing they are. Even just a hug can stimulate a feeling of safety and protection for someone with dementia. Physical touch results in dementia patients having a decrease in agitation for as long as an hour

A report (Ashfeld 2011) showed that touch therapy is approved by many nurses as an effective role of treatment. A controlled study took place that showed patients who received touch therapy displayed fewer dementia symptoms compared to those who received mock treatments (Woods, Craven, & Whitney, 2005). Since this experiment lasted only 3 days, it is hard to specifically state the long-term benefits that touch therapy gives to dementia patients.

 

Charlotte’s story.

As I have been spending years taking care of my grandma, Charlotte Johnson also encounters a similar situation that I find myself in.

Charlotte is a 20-year-old university student, currently studying away from the UK. When she was 17 her Nan was diagnosed with vascular dementia and since has been living in a care facility with health workers.

 “My nan is in a care home so I don’t see her very often, but I know that the staff there hold the hands of residents to calm them”. 

When asked if she knew the origin of the staff’s techniques, Charlotte was quick to say she had no idea of what touch therapy is. 

This is not rare in many cases, touch therapy is foreign to a lot of people and the idea of it being used as treatment gets overlooked a lot and replaced with medications prescribed by doctors.

Many people don’t realise they are performing this therapy on their loved ones, but a touch of the hand or a small hug is enough to cleanse and ease the mind even for a second. 

Charlotte’s views on this ministry showed that she believed touch therapy was a good idea. “If it helps keep her [Nan] calm and reduce any anxiety she may be feeling, without the need of medication which comes with a lot of side effects, I 100% think she should have it consistently as a form of treatment”. 

Touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex which gives the individual receiving touch a sense of passion, love and comfort. It is scientifically proven that it helps relationships as it strengthens reciprocity.

 

Hope in the struggle.

There are many diseases that include dementia symptoms, the most known ones being: Alzheimers, Vascular dementia, Lewy body and Fronto-temporal. 

The treatments can vary depending on the type of disease you have and the reasons behind having dementia symptoms. Many of them have no cure but can be kept under control through medication. 

The absence of cures is reflected throughout many organisations and more times than not, charities raise money to help family members and individuals deal with and accept the idea that dementia has become a part of their lives. DementiaUK, an organisation that aids with dementia support gave an insight into where they put all the money that they raise: 

“Every pound raised helps us support and develop our dementia specialist Admiral Nurses so they can provide a lifeline to families when they need it most. This year, we were able to increase the number of Admiral Nurses working on our Helpline and extend its opening hours, supporting over 29,000 callers throughout the year.”

The sad truth is that dementia will be around for many more years to come. Medicines can aid symptoms but in the case of the disease as a whole, no cure is yet to be found. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common reason for dementia conditions and scientists show that there is no rehabilitation.

However, as far as medicines go there are plenty of products that specialise in reducing manifestations. The main prescriptions are Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and Memantine

Though there are not many treatments for dementia, sources show a lot of research that proves leading a healthy lifestyle will decrease the chance of getting dementia symptoms. This can be suggestions like exercise, healthy eating, maintaining a social life and contacts. 

Progression of research is still proceeding and scientists are acting daily on finding developments on dementia treatments.  However, not all treatments involve medication, one example of this is touch therapy.

 

From the frontline.

There are a lot of arguments about the efficiency of touch therapy and the use it has on dementia patients in opposition to medical treatment such as memantine. Many doctors believe that touch therapy is a good idea for a short relief of anxiety, but medical assistance is the way forward.

Trixton may, an educator and events medic who studies humanitarian medicine and global health care, shared his views on this topic. He stated, “I understand like many forms of holistic treatment, some view touch therapy as pseudo in the sense that it doesn’t work and is not medically proven. However, unlike many other ‘energy healing’ treatments like tai chi and acupuncture, I take a different look at touch therapy.”

Trixton is a paramedic who also works at ‘helping hands’, an organisation that allows him to go to different houses and look after the dementia patients that live there. His outlook on touch therapy is structured through the experiences he has surrounded himself with.

He shared: “I have seen first hand and read peer-reviewed journals that have proven evidence that specifically in the dementia population, helps reduce anxiety.

I don’t have much faith in touch therapy as a whole with the idea that some practitioners claim it has a more effective approach than pharmacological interventions. 

However, first hand in practice, with implied consent, the power of touch when someone is in a time of need, worry and/or increased anxiety, I have seen that physical contact has helped them feel more comforted.”

The majority of medical practitioners share the same opinions as Trixton and believe that touch therapy is not the solution for a permanent cure for dementia symptoms.

“I think it has a place, a small place, but a place nonetheless.” says Trixton May, when concluding his thoughts and opinions surrounding the technique and effects of touch therapy on dementia patients.

 

The ethics surrounding touch therapy.

Although touch therapy is shown to have only positive outcomes we can’t help but take a look at the ethics that surround this treatment. It has issues of consent, especially in the dementia population where it can be argued that there is some lack of capacity to give consent. 

The enactment of the Mental Capacity Act in 2010 shows a specific structure towards assessments of decision making. This act is an evaluation of the patient and therefore if an individual is deemed to have dementia that automatically gives the carer a right to do what they need to without their consent. In many eyes, this can be seen as unethical and not acceptable

Mini-mental state examination is used to determine the rights to decision making for dementia patients as it focuses on cognitive impairment. 

Health care workers are advised to always gain consent no matter what when handling patients. In this case, they would have to announce what they are doing first and see how they react to the verbal control before physically taking over with touch therapy. 

 

 

As my Grandma’s symptoms continue, I use touch to ensure she feels as safe as possible. Still putting the responsibility on our family, we continue to not use care workers to aid with my Grandma’s symptoms and the struggles that come with it. However, we do use a type of touch therapy that allows my grandma to recognise who we are through hugs, hand-holding and physical reassurance. 

This treatment will always be a big part of her life because when she is in the arms of her loved ones, she knows she is safe. Confusion, anxiety and being overwhelmed all contribute to the struggles that dementia patients face. Touch therapy- in that second of being engulfed by physical care- allows them to gain that feeling of being at peace.

Throughout my research on this treatment and the people who I spoke to, my priority over physical touch and love overtook any thoughts on leaving her at a care home. However, this is not to say that medical attention won’t be included as I believe it is vital to her health that scientific medication is a consistent form of treatment for her.

Personally, touch therapy improves our connection with her and for a minute deletes many of the dementia symptoms she holds. Before we used this, we lost all hope of the ‘old’ grandma back, touch therapy has allowed us and her to get a glimpse of reality; the real her. 

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