Have you ever witnessed an older adult after they’ve been out for a hair styling or a pedicure? After a scalp-massaging shampoo and style or after hands and feet are manicured, seniors may talk more and smile wider. They reach out and pat your arm if you sit nearby. They may reach up for a hug, especially from visiting kids.
It’s easy to take daily touch for granted while in the busy seasons of raising kids, managing careers and maintaining marriages. But as those seasons end for seniors, they lose the regular hugs, kisses, pats and embraces that communicate a partner’s desire, a child’s trust, or the comfort, gratitude and sympathy between adults. Seniors seem to “graduate” from a sensory-rich tapestry of family life into one of physical solitude.
What causes this touch “desert”? In part, it’s cultural: Americans tend to prefer two to four feet between themselves and others. They’re also less likely to greet one another with hugs and kisses. In spite of the cultural distances, however, touch is readily available – even hard to avoid – especially with children and partners.
But as children mature into adults and people are widowed or alone, touch for our seniors dries up. A caregiver who’s inundated with touch may find respite at others standing back. But when we’re operating within American cultural norms, we can forget the dearth of physical contact affecting a parent or client.
Recently, too, there’s been a cultural shift toward obtaining consent to hug or even shake hands with others—though gaining consent from older adults has yet to enter the cultural conversation. In this new era of asking others – including our kids – if they’re a hugger or not – or if they prefer a fist bump to a handshake – many caregivers do not yet ask seniors what they want. While a casual hug to say hello or goodbye may feel acceptable without asking, offering sustained or more intimate touch doesn’t, so we create a two-foot psychological distance between loved ones.
For the most part, our elders haven’t been raised with the expectation they should be asked to be given (or give) a hug or kiss. But asking, “Would you like a back rub? Can I brush your hair and style it? Do you mind if I hold your hand?” grants them control and dignity. It’s far better than avoiding both the question and the contact.
Health benefits of touch
The early and late years of life share much in common. The power of touch for infants is well-documented: All infants show improved cognitive growth through holding and infant massage. Kangaroo treatments in NICUs are proven techniques that help premature infants overcome developmental delays and improve immunity. Massage, embrace and simple skin-to-skin contact improve social-emotional development in the brain, as noted in Psychology Today.
Seniors gain similar benefits through loving, appropriate touch as well. Touch lowers blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in stressful tasks, and hand-holding and hugging decrease the stress hormone cortisol and increase oxytocin, a good-feelings hormone that reduces pain sensations and promotes trust and bonding.
“A hug, pat on the back, and even a friendly handshake are processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, which is why they can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, making us feel happiness and joy,” neurologist Shekar Raman, MD, tells Oprah.com. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re the toucher or touchee. The more you connect with others – on even the smallest physical level – the happier you’ll be.”
How to touch
Most touch is informal and personal: hugs, clasping hands, walking arm in arm, dancing, brushing hair, or just sitting shoulder to shoulder. These simple gestures restore confidence, communicate value and improve health, according to one assisted living center.
Some gestures may be more sustained, like a long hug, for instance. Such a hug has powerful restorative powers, so it’s valuable to know how to hug. Arbor Assisted Living provides a wonderful “how-to,” recommending that you slowly inhale and exhale for two breaths or five seconds. Try not to let unrelated thoughts intrude; instead, think about how you value the person.
There are also more formal, therapeutic forms of touch, such as massage. If you care for a homebound senior, a massage gun can help seniors who have chronic musculoskeletal pain.
If you go to a massage therapist yourself, be mindful of your therapist’s technique and the direction of movement to work with the muscles and tissues. Then, use what you observe with your loved ones, always pausing to check in. Ask first where they’d like treatment, ask what’s working, and observe signals for relaxation or discomfort. Tightened facial expressions, faster breathing rates and autonomic responses like tensed fingers or toes reveal discomfort.
One of the benefits of receiving touch and treatment mindfully is that you note when you want to be asked, as well as what relaxes or tenses you. Chances are, seniors will appreciate the same respect and consideration.