Things I Wish I Had Known

Elders and the Need to be Touched

A couple of weeks ago, I bought myself a massage. Even though many friends through the years have extolled its virtues and powers, it is not something I have done much in my life – probably no more than half a dozen times.

I don't know why I booked the hour-long session – the idea just came into my head one day – and I've lost enough weight now (20 pounds, with 20 still to go) that I don't mind (too much) being naked in someone's presence.

It was a good thing to do and although it is not something I can often afford, it was worth the expense. Except for one thing: I'm pretty sure I didn't get all the benefit I could or should have.

Certainly you will agree when I tell you that beginning 15 or 20 minutes into the massage, instead of letting go and drifting off into the calm, it took all my concentration not to weep. When you're fighting against a powerful urge to curl up into the fetal position and sob, complete relaxation isn't going to happen.

(Yes, I know tears are a normal if not everyday response to massage but I am who I am or, at least, who I was that day.)

Back at home a short while later, the feel of the masseuse's hands was still with me, particularly on my back, and then I did cry.

I wept for the exquisite pleasure of the touch of human hands. Even a stranger's. For the fulfillment of a hunger I had not known I had and the emotional release, the joy I experienced was almost too much to bear.

To touch and be touched. We have forgotten, I think, the importance, the need of every human for the touch of another.

It is well known that babies who are not held and touched do not thrive. There is a reason for such a (now old-fashioned) phrase as “healing touch” and even though touch has long been proven to reduce stress, relieve pain and fatigue, and aid the body's natural healing abilities, it is not much considered these days.

One of the terrible things about growing old is that for many of us there is little opportunity to touch and be touched. Partners become widowed, others are alone for different reasons and our modern, scientific medical practices don't much credit touch.

Plus, there are strict taboos in American culture about who may touch whom, when they may do it, where it is allowed and for how long. You don't need me to tell you that generally the mandate is “don't.”

I've been fussing around with writing this post for a week or ten days and I found a reasonable amount of information online about the physical, psychological and spiritual rewards of touch along with acknowledgment that elders moreso than other age groups are deprived of this boon:

”As tactile sensitivity decreases, the need to receive expressive touch may increase. Nature can be cruel however, and the elderly person often may have no one to provide this increased touch...

“One elderly woman put it this way, 'Sometimes I hunger to be held. But he is the one who would have held me. He is the one who would have stroked my head. Now there is no one. No comfort.'”

But I don't want to turn this subject into a research project with a whole lot of quotations. I think we all intuitively understand the need for touch and it is enough, today, to recognize that and talk about it among ourselves.

At The Elder Storytelling Place toay, Warren Lieberman: A Random Meeting


I am married but we don't snuggle any more, but we still hug and kiss. I would miss it terribly if I didn't have it. Plus a scheduled massage every few weeks. You are right about touch being essential to health. Thanks for the reminder.

I call it skin hunger.

maybe that's why I love hugs so much

though I do realize that's not the same as having your skin touched

So true, and so sad. This was a very brave post to write.

Please tell Mom & Dad, who are looking at where to retire, to build their retirement home on our land so the kids and grandkids can hug all over them!

At a square dance a few years ago another dancer - a widow in her 70s - said that one of the reasons she keeps dancing is so that she can be touched and held.

My son lost his wife last year and when I asked him how he was coping with the loss he said he missed being held.

I have had many hugs and treasure them, but I have not been held for many years and didn't know how much I missed it until I read your touching post. I think I have been in denial out of self protection.

Thank you for your courageous story reminding us of our humanity.

Dancing, if you're up to it, is a great answer for the need to be touched. Someone once called it "sex standing up," and it does provide the chance to be held in someone's arms for a while.

In our town there's a ballroom dance group that offers classes and sponsors dances, at which everyone dances with everyone, so you don't need to be in a partnered relationship to participate.

There's also a contra dance group with the same norms, and with the bonus that contra dancing is easy to learn.

So, I encourage everyone who is able-bodied to get out there and dance. Lots of touch, with music to boot. It isn't a substitute for intimacy, but it sure feels good.

Was lying in bed this morning, before reading your post, thinking how much I continue to miss that hand stroking my back every morning.

I have a massage every two weeks - an expensive luxury that I am reluctant to give up. I am still very active and a competitive athlete so I justify the expense (to myself) for that reason. Certainly it helps me prevent injury or recover from injury.
My massage therapist tells me that having clients weep is not unusual in her experience - especially for clients who are new to massage or rarely receive one.

I was never touched much as a child, and now I cherish hugs.

Call me crazy, but I occasionaly hug myself.

My, my, how I agree with you, and the comments add richness as well. Today I have my regularly scheduled massage and my exercise at the gym, both mandatory in my honest opinion, and I surround myself with huggers and touchers as much as I am able, replacing the absent partner or parental embrace.

After helping my husband through a rough surgery and recovery (several months of anxiety if not sheer terror), I got a massage. When it was over I burst into tears and cried uncontrollably. Literally. Ms. Masseuse was very patient, brought me water, patted my shoulder, even held my hand until I got myself back. This happens after serious care-giving, she explained. Said she saw it all the time and it was normal and understandable. Like you bottle up the need for self-care, and then a simple kind touch and it's all over.

So many of my much older friends see chiropractors - I always thought it was for the hands-on treatment, because they would go even when Medicare would not cover.

I've never had a massage. I'm extremely shy and modest and it's just never sounded inviting. Good to know about the crying though, just in case, because I cry at the drop of a hat.

Beautiful post, Ronni, on such an important topic. I whole-heartedly recommend a massage: it doesn't have to be a whole body, could be just feet, head/face, or back. It not only satisfies that touch deprivation but reduces tension and improves the immune system. It is good to give it as well as receive.

An excellent posting Ronni.

I can't recall the details of a moving story I heard years ago but let me try to reconstruct it as best as i can. Many years ago a lonely, older man who was probably living like a bum and had no social contacts, either fell ill or hurt himself and had to be brought to the community hospital. He was extremely dirty, smelly and unshaven. He was a disgusting sight to most of the staff there.

But one compassionate nurse kindly approached him, graciously asked if you could clean him up and prepare him for the doctor. He was of course reluctant because he knew he smelled and looked atrocious. Yet the nurse seem to be oblivious of this.

She began to peel his grimy clothes off and then proceeded to wash him. It was at this point that the man became overwrought and began to cry. When asked by the nurse what it was she had done, fearing she had somehow physically hurt him or embarrassed him, the man told her, "It's been years since I have felt the warm touch of another human being".

Just the mere gentle touching he had apparently not experienced for some years had transformed him from this unapproachable human being by most of the staff to someone whose heart had been aching for such a long time.

Touching and powerful, Ronni.

I've never had a massage and several of you have mentioned that it is expensive -- just how much do they cost?

When I had physical therapy (due to back disc issues) the last part was a nice back massage. It was WONDERFUL! That was several years ago, and I think I'll schedule a massage again after reading your post. I'm a widow of 7 years, and I do miss the healing touch of having a loving partner. Good post!

I admire your courage at sharing your feelings.
I remember when my husband was ill and in the hospital, he asked me to shave him. I was surprised and asked him if he was sure he would not rather do it himself, as he could do a much better job. His answer, "I want to feel you touch me". That has stayed with me.

I feel so fortunate now to be married to a wonderful man and to cuddle with him at night. He lies on one side of me, and the cat cuddles up on the other side. It's a blissful way to fall asleep and wake up.

There was a very long period when I didn't have that and really missed it.

I enjoy my therapeutic massages each few weeks. To find a cheaper option, check if there is a massage training school in your area. You can often get cheap rates as practice for the students.

About the only way I get hugs now that my husband is gone is from my 10-year-old grandson. He won't do it often and soon he won't do it at all, alas.

But massages are wonderful. So are pedicures when they massage your lower legs with warm rocks.

I miss just being able to sit next to a partner when we were reading. Massages are wonderful. I saw this on the artist James Gurney's blog today - a painting of a woman lying against a statue called "Two Lovers" by Nick Alm. Says a lot.

For most of my life I've resisted touch. Now I wonder what I've been missing.

I have been without a love for many years, but I am so lucky to be part of several extended families who hug a lot: my two UU congregations, two folk music organizations, two writing groups, as well as individual friends, and lots of family (that I don't get to see nearly often enough) I highly recommend hugs! The more the better.

Thank you Ronni for this brave post. This is the first time I have seen this subject written about.

There is a taboo about touching another person unless it is a relative or a person you are in a relationship with.
We had an incident in our older dance class when a new young dance teacher tried to get us to touch each other.
We rebelled. One woman summed it up : "We are Scots, older Scots.It is not something we do unless we are related."
We were inhibited but young people have no such inhibitions.

Lyn at The Never Ending Journey posted about her training for an intensive healing touch program. She works with a hospice program. My mother-in-law was living with us for about six weeks at that time after multiple hospitalizations.

As a result of Lyn's posts about her experiences I increased the hugs and touch with positive results. Lyn gave me this URL for the program's Website:

Hi Ronni, long time I didn't comment one of your posts. I am still relatively young (55) but as I don't have a companion since 3 years, I agree with you that not being touched is more difficult to stand than pure sexuality. I found near my home a small place where I do some gym (treadmill, this kind of things) and it was bought by Chinese. They offer a vaste range of massages. So I tried a Chinese massage. Really tough.. The first time, I thought I would be unable to go home after it was done! No time for crying despite the fact that my mother passed away a few weeks before. In fact it was energetic. And not too expensive. So from time to time and after a physical effort, I buy one for an hour (48 euros which is cheap. In nice places, it is more 75 -> 160 euros). And it is good to have someone to take care of you. So perhaps you could try an energetic massage next time. Thanks anyway for your very moving post. Colette, Paris (France, Europe)

For Classof65, a massage costs $50-60 for a one hour session. Your body feels wonderful for at least 3 days after, so if you can afford it - do it! Most masseuse's have a nicely decorated, low light, very private room and they're trained to keep a sheet over anything you don't want exposed. Just ask for references from friends because there are 'average' masseuse's and 'wonderful' masseuse's and they charge similar fees.

Classof65 and Lauren...
Mine cost $70 which, from my research, is about average for my location although some are more expensive.

There is a chain massage business that charges less per session if you "join" for a year. Customer reviews of it were mixed, so I went with a local masseuse.

Very interesting topic.....I do not like being massaged. I do not like having anybody touch my body that way. I love to cuddle with my husband of 50 years and we do that each morning. Sometimes he even holds my hand when we walk and plants a perfunctory kiss on my face as thanks for a meal well done......but he does laundry and empties the

Sad that in my younger years, I had a husband who was very touchy-feely but I wasn't in an emotional place to be very accepting, other than when I was 'in the mood.' Then, post-divorce, I met someone special and let some of my baggage go. Though still close, we don't see each other very much due to distance, so I've very much felt that particular loss.

My friends and I frequently hug, but it's not quite the same as hands and arms on skin all over, even non-sexually. Hand-holding, arms over shoulders, back-rubs, gentle sliding of hands along arms and legs... It's so simple, yet special.

A couple of years ago, I saw my doctor to investigate a possible DVT, I think it was. Well, I was instantly struck how good it felt for someone to touch and gently knead my calf muscles! In that moment, he was just another human being in skin-to-skin contact with me. I was swooning inside! I also laughed inside, and joked with my friends about how pathetic it felt at the time, but in a humorous way.

This is a very profound essay you've written, and I thank you deeply for being so honest and shining a light on an important issue. As a retired nurse, I already knew it intellectually, and professionally had no problem with being in close contact with my patients, but I forgot about me. I will soon be the recipient of many hugs and kisses when I return to the area in which my family lives, so that will help, as would taking up dancing, as someone suggested. And I'm going to be keeping my eyes open for another worthy relationship to enrich my life in an intimate way. But for now, I'm going to schedule a one-hour birthday massage (only the second one in my life, as I feel very awkward about being out of shape), so thanks for this wonderful reminder that it's not only newborns who benefit from skin-to-skin contact.

Thank you! You've just validated my reaction (carefully hidden) to my sessions with a physical therapist after my mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

Thank you Ronnie for the reminder we all need touching, even carers who tend to forget their own needs.
One of my earliest memories was at the hairdressers, with the wonderful feeling of having my hair washed then cut. I still enjoy the head massage when having my hair done and even though a hairdo can be expensive, you get two treats for the price of one.

I have often wondered if the wonderful feelings from having your hair done was the reason people pay the prices they do to have a good hairdresser and not just the fact of having your hair done nicely. The subconsious need for a warm human touch can be very strong.

I have been getting Chiropractic adjustments for 62 years, and the hands on was one of the benefits, beside keeping me in good really beats pills and shots.My 1st. husband was the DC but my second husband and i have been hugging for 35 years, and it always makes us feel good.

I am fortunate to live in a corner of the country where hugs are readily exchanged as greetings even between people who only know one another from a work or casual social context. Some are side-arm quick squeezes, but many are firm and face to face. They do help compensate for the more intimate touch that had (until recently) been lacking in my life.
Marasmus (I may not be spelling it quite right) is the term for failure to thrive in babies who are not cuddled and touched enough - they could and did die, until the importance to touch to survival was recognized. I'm certain the same life-denying forces affect seniors, indeed anyone, who is touch deprived.

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