In addition to boosting circulation, easing stress and relieving aches and pains, all important physiologically for people who don’t move around much, massage bestows a basic need the elderly often go without: touch.
A study published in 1998 in the Journal of Applied Gerontology found that elderly people who massaged infants experienced less stress, improved mood and fewer trips to the doctor.
Researchers believe massage, and touch generally, can strengthen the immune system by stimulating pressure receptors under the skin, which in turn reduces the stress hormone cortisol, the chief culprit in killing disease-fighting cells, said Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
But elderly people, who could use the immune-boosting benefits of touch the most, are getting it the least.
More than chatting, playing games or holding hands, giving focused, attentive touch establishes a nurturing bond that expresses caring, Nelson said. She has seen it ease symptoms of touch deprivation, such as irritability and a lack of interest in life. In people with dementia, she said, it helps ground them in reality.