Biofield Energetic Hands-on Therapies in Older Adults

By Shantel Matthews, MSN, RN, CCM, HTP-A

Do you remember the last time you stubbed your toe, scraped your arm, or bumped into something? Or maybe you had heartburn or the arthritis in your knee was acting up. The natural tendency is to place your hand over the area that is causing you pain. The warmth and energy from your hand provides some comfort to the area and may make you feel better. Touch can also enhance nonverbal communication. Holding someone’s hand is a way of saying “I love you”. Touch is especially valuable in communicating with people with limited cognitive function such as dementia. Touch provides calming reassurance and can provide stimulation to older people. Whether we are placing a hand over an injury, extending a hand to a friend’s shoulder, embracing a loved one in a hug or holding an infant, touch is an essential human need. Studies of infants raised in poorly staffed and overcrowded orphanages show the damaging effects of lack of touch on the brain. These infants experienced poor growth and development, failure to thrive, and if they survived, permanent changes in brain development. Despite different cultural and individual practices and beliefs, humans are wired to touch and be touched.

Most Americans are touch deprived. The average American covets their very large personal space, steps back from anyone who enters it providing non-verbal cues that are read as loud and clear as wearing a sign around their neck that states: “Do not enter my personal space!” There are numerous reasons that our culture shies away from touch including issues surrounding concerns of misinterpretation and sexuality. The elderly are especially touch deprived. According to the Administration on Aging 2011 statistics, approximately 30% of people 65 and older live alone. That number increases with age. Almost half of all women 75 years of age and older live alone. 4.1% of the 65+ population resides in long term care facilities. This also increases drastically with age; 13.2% of people 85 and older live in long term care facilities. Many elders have lost spouses, life partners, siblings, and long-time friends. An elder may suffer from serious illness and be isolated from remaining friends and family. Family may be distant in proximity to the elder or emotionally unavailable. Regardless of the cause, the result is a dramatic lack of touch for most of the population’s elderly.

Touch is considered a therapeutic intervention in the profession and art of nursing. Estabrooks (1989) identified three distinct types of touch used by nurses: caring touch, protective touch, and task touch. Caring touch can be described as comforting or encouraging. Caring touch is also known as expressive touch. Protective and task touch are used to provide safety and perform necessary client care procedures respectively. Caring touch, protective touch and task touch can be utilized concurrently. In long term care facilities, task touch is the most prevalent form of touch between caregiver and patient.

Touch as a biofield energetic hands-on therapy (BEHT) found its beginnings in the practice of nursing in the 1970’s with Delores Krieger who developed Therapeutic Touch with Dora Kunz. In the 1990’s, Healing Touch was developed by holistic nurse Janet Mentgen. Prior to Therapeutic Touch and Healing Touch, BEHTs have existed for thousands of years. One of the earliest known record dates back to ancient Egypt including the writings in the Ebrus Papyrus describing the medical intervention of laying on of hands to heal the sick. Jesus and Buddha were two of the most famous documented healers in history. Even today, there are many cultures that continue to use hands on healing through shamanic or traditional healers. Reiki (pronounced Ray-key) has become a more popular BEHT in America. Reiki’s origins are found in Japan in the late 1800’s with a Japanese physician, Mikao Usui. There are many other BEHTs including but not limited to Quantum Touch, Polarity Therapy, Jin Shin, JoRei, and Zero Balancing. Many of these modalities have similar underlying foundations for practice. Although spiritual in nature, most of these therapies do not subscribe to any particular religion. Anyone can learn many of these BEHTs; one does not need to work in the healthcare field, although it may be helpful.

Healing Touch, Therapeutic Touch, and Reiki are integrative therapies used in conjunction with traditional medicine to promote health and wellness. They are classified as BEHT by the National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health. Practitioners work with the Human Energy Field (HEF) also known as the biofield or aura. For the scientific community, the human biofield has not been clearly defined and it is not capable of being measured at this time. So how do we know it exists? There are many theories that support the concept of the HEF including but not limited to Field, Relativistic, Quantum, and String Theories. Studies on energy healers have shown to have some effect. Quantitative research has shown improvement in anxiety, fatigue, pain, and immune function. Jain and Mills (2010) synthesis on a systematic review of 66 clinical studies of BEHTs revealed evidence for reducing pain in pain populations and reducing negative behaviors in dementia populations. However there is still much that is not known about these energy therapies and much more quality research needed to be done. Since we are not able to measure the subtle energies and how the modality works, there is some mystery involved.

Presumably, the biofield contains subtle energy that is important for health and wellness. A balanced HEF allows for energy to flow. When the HEF is not in balance, energy becomes stagnant and creates illness in the physical body. Practitioners of hands on BEHT such as Healing Touch, Therapeutic Touch, and Reiki use light or near body touch to clear, balance and energize the HEF to promote health and healing. Healing does not equate to curing although this may sometimes occur. Healing is a personal and individualized way of obtaining wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Healing as defined in Holistic Nursing is the return of integrity and wholeness of the natural state of an individual.

Healing Touch and other BEHTs can be utilized successfully in the elderly population. In addition to much anecdotal evidence supporting BEHT, some quantitative studies have also shown benefit in this population. One pilot study was performed measuring agitation before and after Healing Touch in patients with dementia. Patients who received Healing Touch were significantly less agitated and researchers recommended further investigation with a larger group (Wang, 2006). Another study supported the use of Reiki for patients residing in a long term care facility. The study showed that patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and stroke improved symptoms related to stress and depression (Thomas, 2005). Therapeutic touch was shown to decrease pain and anxiety in an elderly population with musculoskeletal pain and decrease pain in elders with degenerative arthritis (Lin & Taylor, 1998 and Peck, 1997). Although more studies need to be done, the consensus is that these BEHTs are generally safe and can provide benefit to those experiencing pain, anxiety, and depression.

During a session with the client, the energetic Practitioner is fully present and attuned to the client in a caring manner. Sessions can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending upon the modality, client response, and time allowed. Most clients experience relaxation during and immediately following the session. The desired results often occur gradually over a series of sessions. Techniques for self-care can be taught to the client or caregiver to enhance and maintain the balance of energy and promote healing.

Despite all that we do not know about how these BEHTs work, the majority of people who have experienced a treatment generally enjoy and obtain benefit from them. Young or old, we can all benefit from touch that is provided in a caring and compassionate manner. For the elderly population that is often isolated, touch deprived, and at times institutionalized in depersonalized settings BEHT can fill the gap of caring touch that is a basic underlying need for all humans.

“To touch can be to give life” Michaelangelo



Administration on Aging (2011). Living arrangements, Aging Statistics. Obtained from

Ardiel, E. & Rankin, C. (2010). The importance of touch in development, Pediatric Child Health 15:3, 153-156.

Jain, S., & Mills, P. (2010) Biofield therapies: Helpful or full of hype? A best evidence synthesis. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 17, 1-16.

Lin, Y.S., & Taylor, A.G. (1998). Effects of Therapeutic Touch in reducing pain and anxiety in an elderly population. Integrative Medicine, 1, 155-162.

Dossey, B., & Keegan, L. (2008) Holistic Nursing: A handbook for practice, 5th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Peck, S.D.E. (1997) The effectiveness of Therapeutic Touch for decreasing pain in elders with degenerative arthritis. Nursing Science Quarterly, 11(3), 123-132.

Thomas, T.M. (2005). Reiki adds a new dimension to the term ‘Quality of life’ in the nursing home community. American Journal of Recreation Therapy (4)4, 43-48.

Wang, K. (2006). Pilot study to test the effectiveness of Healing Touch on agitation in people with dementia. Geriatric Nursing (27)1, 34-40.

Categories: Aging well