The Caring Touch

by Carolynne Stevens

Condensed Version

Human beings need to have all five senses stimulated all the time. Touch is one of the five ways the brain receives stimulating information to enable it to develop, maintain and repair itself. Touch has the first, most direct and powerful effect on the brain's programming and re-programming activity. Accordingly, touch, including its inherent kinesthetic (movement) stimulation, is particularly important in working with young children and with adults with brain impairments.

Meeting the Need for Touch

Now, back to the question of how to respond to the need for human contact. Infants, little children and some adults (such as developmentally disabled or regressed adults) have very high needs for caregivers' touch. . . To bond. To comfort. To direct their attention. To show caregiver approval. These essential needs cannot be met without frequent hugs, pats, hand-holding, and other reassurance of affection. Young children or developmentally disabled adults often initiate contact in the form of hugs, kisses or leaning on the caregiver, i.e., they have not learned to maintain our culture's normal social distance (about 18-24 inches). Caregivers must not ignore or appear to rebuff or reject these customers because, for them, touch and physical closeness are still primary and essential forms of human communication.

In time, children and many developmentally disabled adults may learn to be equally satisfied with smiles, verbal affection, and handshakes. Until then, however, their need for physical contact is as important as their need for food and water.

Elderly adults may also need physical contact. Often, they have no family or close friends left. They may have no one except staff or other residents to offer the basic human comfort of friendly touch or a supportive hug.

Providing human touch in ways that are fully appropriate, safe and respectful requires good planning, good training and scrupulous supervisory oversight. Without the caring touch, however, some of the most dependent customers will be damaged in their capacities to develop emotionally and socially.