Traverse City Record-Eagle


November 25, 2010

Senior Focus: Touch consoles, heals

Our need for human contact is vital. Research has found that touch is essential to our emotional, physical and mental health, regardless of age. Touch can reassure, relax, soothe and comfort. Touch diminishes stress, lessens pain, moderates the difficulties of life and gives rise to optimism.

Touch is the first sense a baby develops in the womb, and touch — of all the senses — is the least impacted by advancing years. For older adults, touch can be therapeutic and expresses caring in a way words cannot.

In fact, touch is so vital that noted American author and psychotherapist Virginia Satir said, "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth."

Without touch, individuals experience isolation, loneliness and sorrow.

Yet — in spite of our need for touch — in today's "touch-phobic" society, many people are unable to benefit from it. Given that the simplest and most innocent touch easily can be misconstrued as inappropriate, people are reluctant to show concern. There also might not be anyone with whom to share a touch.

The Traverse City Senior Center programs that incorporate touching are too important to ignore.

"Some of the activities that we have going on here at the Senior Center, that purposely involve touch, would be our reflexology, foot care and massage programs," said Lori Wells, director. "We have had to add a second massage session each month to accommodate the need — people are really responding well to that program. You really don't think about touch as a reason to initiate a program, but touch is just icing on the cake and an added bonus to certain programs."

Besides being an accepted part of many physical rehabilitation programs, massage also has proven beneficial for other conditions, including alleviating low back pain and improving range of motion, increasing joint flexibility, lessening depression and anxiety, improving circulation, and helping arthritic conditions. As well as releasing endorphins, the body's natural painkiller, the touch of massage also helps relieve the stress and tension of everyday living.

"Massage is nurturing, and we need it," said Paula Gale, one of the massage therapists at the Senior Center. "But many seniors have to have an opening or encouraging reason to schedule a massage session. Many of them have grown up with the idea that touch is OK in very limited situations. However, there are good health reasons to move through this attitude."

The massage sessions at the Senior Center are short — only 15 minutes. So, as the participant rests on a massage table, Gale's goal in that time frame is to discover the area of the body where the discomfort is and evaluate what she can do to help alleviate it. She does a combination of simple relaxation techniques — mostly sustained pressure working with collective tissues.

While Gale is conducting sensory touching along the body, the brain is being bombarded with the sensations, whether from pleasure or pain relief, and the brain temporarily shuts down, leaving total relaxation and relieving the tension of everyday living.

"As to our other programs that use the healing power of touch, that would be our grief support group and our Parkinson's support group," Wells said. "Those are groups (that) understand the value of human touch — human contact. You'll see hugs and handshakes going on in those groups all of the time."

When there are individuals at the Senior Center who need to be comforted, there's always a shoulder to lean on and a friend to give that necessary hug — a touch you might not find anywhere else.

The benefits of most human touch are created through personal occurrences. My husband was a demonstrative person and, since his death, I deeply miss his reassuring and supportive hugs. A short time after he died, a couple drove out to the house just to give me one of those hugs. At the time, I didn't realize just how important that hug would be. Eight years later, I still remember that thoughtful gesture. So, perhaps a friendly hug, a handclasp or an encouraging pat on the shoulder does more for all of us than we realize.

For more information on Senior Center programs, call 922-4911 or e-mail

Kathleen Bellaw Gest is a local freelance writer. For more about the Traverse City Senior Center, go to

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