Some research has found that for those with Alzheimer’s, human touch plays an integral role in promoting overall well-being. Just five minutes of hand massage, for instance, can induce a physical relaxation response and reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress.
Massage/touch therapy has also been found to raise levels of serotonin, a neurochemical that promotes feelings of calm and reduces anxiety.
Massage and touch have been suggested as nonpharmacological interventions to reduce and/or manage a range of conditions associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia-related disorders, such as anxiety, agitated behaviors and depression. However, because the research is so limited in scope, it is not possible to draw general conclusions about the benefits of these therapies for those with these conditions.
Some studies have found that using calming music and hand massage reduced verbal agitation, a benefit sustained for up to one hour. Another study found that hand massage/touch therapies were somewhat beneficial in agitated individuals. Hand massages were given for five minutes in the mornings and afternoons for 10 days, and results showed these interventions decreased the frequency and intensity of agitated behaviors during morning care routines, but not during evening care.
“People with Alzheimer’s disease don’t lose the capacity for human emotion or recognition of a caring touch. There are several benefits massage therapy offers people with Alzheimer’s disease, including increased body awareness and alertness, as well as a reduction in the feelings of confusion and anxiety. You also build reassurance and trust and help calm agitation,” said Ann Catlin, founder of the Center for Compassionate Touch and an expert in the field of massage therapy in elder care and hospice.
Additionally, Catlin said she believes massage therapy can also help ease the effects of isolation, loneliness and boredom while encouraging feelings of worthiness and well-being.
While some people with Alzheimer's respond well to being touched or having their hands massaged, others could have a negative response. Some connect it to long-term memories of emotional or physical pain. Therefore, such therapies need to be applied on an individual basis.