Something as Simple as Touch

Ronda Knuth

olderwomanfaceAt times the tyranny of the urgent bullies its way to the top of the daily to-do list extinguishing even the most rudimentary kindness. Indeed, in our desire to conquer our categorized index of mandatory responsibilities, we often leave little room for even the most basic regard for the people in our lives. Self-imposed ideologies become exacting roles. Rigid schedules scripted for robotic movement within pre-described structure intimidate even the staunchest among us. In the living out of such prescriptive dogma, those actions most needed to sustain healthy emotion, thought and relationship are vanquished.

In other words, simply spoken, we forget to care.

The day Connie* stopped by the front desk to get her mail I was reminded that the smallest expressions of kindness, is huge to one who is alone. A thoughtful word, a listening ear, a simple touch.

Touching is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes and the size of my feet. I like to give an appropriate touch; a hug, a pat on the arm, a tender back rub.

"Here's your mail," I spoke gently laying my hand on her arm. She paused, looked at me through wizened eyes, then spoke words now permanently etched on my heart, "You're the first person to touch me today."

The First Person

It was mid-afternoon. The day was nearly gone. Was it really possible that in a place brimming with busy people scurrying here and there I was the first to touch her? My heart broke.

If we're not careful, it happens in settings such as Sunrise. The focus becomes the residents' basic needs. Those needs may be met with the utmost efficiency. Clean rooms, healthy food, daily exercise, a shampoo and body scrub. Yet a need just as important, possibly more so, may remain unmet. The resident may be literally starving for the nourishment that comes through one-on-one attention and skin-to-skin human contact.

The mere act of touch is a form of nonverbal communication which delivers a poignant message, "You matter to me. I care about you." The opposite is true as well. The mere act of NOT touching delivers a distressing message of its own, "You're unworthy, unlovely, a pariah." One response soothes and heals, the other pains and debilitates.

Studies show that many of our elderly are touch deprived, either because they are alone and isolated where touch by others is curtailed, or because they lack the soft, wrinkle free skin our society requires to be one of the touchables.

Research at the University of North Carolina shows that a simple hug can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and bring comfort and calm. For a brief moment, it can be a shield against the world.

I made a mental note as Connie walked away that day to take time to touch the seniors in my life. Now many months later I watch as Nan* slowly pushes her walker in my direction, her gait halting and slow. To my delight, she settles into a chair near my desk and simply waits. Remembering my resolve, I set my work aside, reminding myself as I do, that nothing is more important than her.

Nan's the quiet type, pleasant but firmly hidden behind a wall of self-imposed silence. Most days she does little more than nod and say hello. Her sad eyes seem to ask, "Why am I still here with no one to love me?" I reach for a nearby bottle of lotion and slide my chair up next to hers. "Nan, may I put some lotion on your hands?"

Something Changes

She hesitates, suspicion in her eyes. This is something new to her. Slowly I reach my hand toward hers and she allows me to pull her taut hand tenderly into mine. Her hands are wrinkled, tiny, dry. I warm the balm in the palm of my hand and then begin to massage the cream into her own palm, then the back of her hand, then each fragile finger, careful lest I tear her delicate paper thin skin. She relaxes and I can tell that the pleasurable, sacred touch is quite simply doing a miracle for her spirit. The touch is sweeping the loneliness and isolation away.

As I work, I speak quietly to her, "You know, I love these hands. They've fixed many a meal, washed lots of clothes, cared for others for an awfully long time." Her fingers relax in mine as I talk on oblivious to the world, concentrating solely on her, "Your hands are beautiful."

I know why she's chosen to isolate her heart from the rest of the world.

While her mind is sharp, it often short-circuits before she can speak, and the words come out in a muddle. To my surprise she speaks. Though a word here and there is jumbled, I find that if I listen carefully I can understand exactly what she is saying. "I don't feel pretty," she offers. I understand. In a world that places value on outer beauty and unblemished youth, it's difficult for senior women to feel that they are lovely. Nan does not understand that she is valued simply because she exists.She is valued simply because she exists

She shares that she is frustrated because she can't talk clearly, because she can't make others understand what she is trying to say. I smile and tell her that, because of my Fibromyalgia, I too have moments when what comes out of my mouth sounds nothing like what I intended. And, some days, when my body is hurting, I too wonder about the fairness of life. In the sharing, something happened, something shifted in her trust. We made a connection because of our mutual pain. Halting, as though measuring my response, she tells me that she feels she has no value and is simply waiting to die. I remind her that her very presence has purpose, that she is still alive because there is still work for her to do, people for her to touch, lives that only she can encourage and breath hope into.

Finished with the first hand, I reach for the other. This time there is no hesitancy. She lays her hand in mine and I am honored by her trust. It only took a few minutes and the willingness to listen and to care.

It's amazing what a small, rudimentary kindness can mean to one who is alone.

* not her real name

By Ronda Knuth

© 2011 Ronda Knuth