As a creative companion, I was first sent to visit Jill in a very impressive-looking care home set within beautiful countryside. It was perfect for Jill, who used to live on a farm.
On that first visit, what struck me most was how frail Jill was, and how lonely she must be – just quietly lying in bed, staring into nothingness. The carers were lovely and kind but were kept busy by other patients with more challenging and urgent needs. Jill’s door was open so that she could be monitored – but, as she was so quiet, contact with others was probably minimal.
As I pulled my chair up to her bed and gently touched her hand to introduce myself, Jill’s other hand immediately came across and clasped mine. There was almost a sense of urgency – she was ensuring that I was not going to leave, clinging onto that small amount of human contact, her eyes searching mine. I found it quite overwhelming in that moment, how touch can be the unspoken language of compassion. I mirrored her response by placing my spare hand on top of hers, calmly assuring her that I was not leaving, and she gave me a soft smile.
Touch deprivation can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety and insecurity, as well as decreased sensory awareness and a lack of trust. Touch stimulates the production of oxytocin, a chemical in our brain that leads to feelings of closeness and security. When this is released, feelings of safety, caring, trust and relaxation are prompted in a person’s body.
Touch is the first sense that is developed in the womb and one of the last to leave us in the dying process – it is the most fundamental of human needs. As we grow older and start to decline in our body and mind due to ageing or even an illness, the need for human touch seems to be accentuated in the search for reassurance, comfort and connection.
Over the many months that I visited Jill, the power of touch was very clear. I learnt how important it was to her and how sensitive she was to it. I soon discovered that I had to have warm hands if I was going to hold hers. But we would often joke that cold hands meant you had a warm heart.
Jill loved to have her hair brushed or stroked, and she would reminisce about how her mother had brushed and styled her hair when she was younger, speaking of her earlier life in London. She would be very tired some days but would seek to hold my hand or ask for me to stroke her hair while she fell asleep, happy in the knowledge that I was there.
As a creative companion, I am often humbled by how much of a difference you can make in a relatively small amount of time – and how, for those moments, you can bring feelings of comfort, happiness and contentment. It is vital for us to understand the power of touch, the importance of person-centred care, the meaning of life enrichment and our responsibility to create moments of joy and purpose.