Real Life

With Seniors, Remember - It's All in the Touch

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Like most people, I know the importance of human touch and interaction for a healthy existence. I also know that seniors, especially those living alone or in assisted living, often experience reduced contact and interaction with others that can affect their moods and contribute to depression. But it wasn’t until I spent a particular day with my mom that I truly saw it right in front of me.

My mom is 90 years old, and she lives in a “residential community.” I see her once a week—at a minimum—and we do various things together. Sometimes it’s all business like doctors’ appointments or errands, and sometimes it’s just for fun. I’ve often noticed that my mom seems kind of down when I arrive, yet by the end of our time together, she seems livelier.

One day, though, it really drove it home how much getting out or getting hugged or simply having a conversation beyond “how are you feeling?” can improve not only her mood, but also her cognition. Now, I’m no doctor; I’m just a daughter. So when I say “cognition,” I mean it in the way that we caregivers know—kind of like a sharp-o-meter. It’s the way in which she converses and interacts, whether or not she’s involved in the conversation or just looking at me. How engaged she is in the world around her, simply.

On this day that we were together, she was rating particularly low on the sharp-o-meter. It was one of those times where, upon greeting her, I thought to myself, “She seems older today.” I wasn’t sure how the day was going to play out, but…off we went. We did various things together including a doctor’s visit, lunch, and of course…ice cream!

Honestly, after my initial assessment of her demeanor, I didn’t dwell on how she was acting, we just went and did. We did stuff, talked, I gave her hugs, took her hand here and there—just mindless, everyday living.

It was when it was time for me to leave that it registered with me. My mom was smiling and talking and had a spark to her. In that moment, I flashed back to my first impression of her that day, and how she was right then, and I marveled at the difference. She went from dark to light, really. And the only thing that changed was her level of interaction and touch. It was one of those experiences where something you intellectually know becomes something you tangibly know, resulting in a deeper appreciation and understanding.

It was a remarkable change that stuck with me. As a caregiver (and daughter, really), I run the risk of feeling inordinately responsible for how my mom feels, and I knew I had to be careful to not have my realization translate into a call to “fix” the situation. Of course she loves that I am spending time with her, but it’s not just about me. It’s about how much she is connecting with the world around her as a whole.

At 90, she doesn’t have the greatest drive to get herself in the mix with the other residents at her place, but I continually encourage her to do so. Some days she’s better at it than others, and I can hear it in her voice when I talk to her on the phone. It makes a significant difference.

As for me, what I realized that day is the need for me to be more mindful of the time we spend together. I give her more hugs and squeezes. I make sure that I’m an attentive listener when she shares a story about who did what at bingo. I try to consistently bring my A game.

The truth is that we can’t be all things to all people. We can’t even be all things to one single person. But we can realize that how we interact matters and perhaps be a little more generous with our touches and our time. The return on your investment will be extraordinary.

Guest post by Lisa Ancona-Roach, The Juggle Struggle


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