What the Oldest Old Know

Old People and Skin Hunger

”...the part I actually find hard about being single is that I never get touched, and this is always overlooked and undervalued.”

I ran across that statement in a story at Medium written by Emma Lindsay who is, gleaned from her story titled Being Single is Hard, much younger than most of us who hang out at this blog.

But she's writing about something that affects elders at least as much as people her age. In the past, I've called it “skin hunger.” People also call it “touch hunger.” The meaning is obvious – the primal need of all humans (and, probably, some animals) to be touched, one living being to another.

When I last wrote about touch hunger here, I quoted my friend Ken Pyburn who had explained to me that it is

”...the idea that when, through death, divorce or other circumstance, we live without a partner in old age, we can feel our skin longing, even aching for the touch of another person.”

It can be a sexual longing or not. There is a poignant observation from an old woman, Estelle, who took a class about how to write sex scenes from reporter Steve Almond. He describes her first essay:

”What emerged was miraculous: a heartbreaking scene between an elderly couple in a museum,” explains Almond.

“The woman is full of suppressed longings. She fantasizes about going back to their hotel room and lying back on the bed and letting the man part her legs and her sex. She can’t express these desires out loud, though, so instead, when they get back to their room, the sexual act focuses on the man and his failure to achieve an erection.”

The woman, half a century older than the other students, was shy about reading her essay aloud, but she got through it. And then, as I said in that previous post, Almond's essay really got interesting:

“After she finished reading,” he continued, “Estelle glanced around the room sheepishly. I can’t remember her exact words, but they went something like this:

“'I came here today because I want people to know that elderly people still have desires. Nobody wants to think about it. But we do. I live in a retirement community where it’s mostly women and the men are sort of beat up. But we still have needs. We still need to be touched.'”

Yes, that is so: “We still need to be touched.”

It starts in infancy – babies do not thrive if they are not touched and held – and the need doesn't go away with age.

Some people have been attributing a growing prevalence of skin hunger to fewer people choosing marriage, preferring to live alone. Others believe a great deal of the problem is a result of technology and

”...the disconnected lifestyle a majority of the population leads. In America, work life and student life is often demanding, allowing little time for intimate, one-on-one periods with friends, family and loved ones.

“When individuals do find time to be around loved ones, exhaustion or unhappiness frequently stall or prevent intimate interactions, both of sexual and nonsexual nature.”

I'm not certain I buy that explanation in general, but my reluctance doesn't make the the need less real.

In the past, I have found solace in massage. That hasn't been possible for the last 11 months due to recovery from surgeries but I'm about ready to get back to that once a month or so. Here is something new (to me, anyway) going on to deal with this hunger - professional cuddlers.

At the website of one such enterprise, you can book a cuddler or learn how to become one. Here is a short video from the co-founders of The Cuddlist:

Without being able to explain the reason, I am more comfortable with a masseur or masseuse but that is undoubtedly an individual choice.

I've lived alone, now, for decades and what I have missed during all these years is not the sexual touching as much as the casual touches of two people long familiar with one another – a pat on the shoulder while passing by, holding hands on a walk, the warmth of another person sitting or sleeping next to me.

But, as I am suddenly and acutely aware after the death of Ollie the cat last week, our pets go a long way to helping meet this mutual need.

What's your take on this?


No denying it. "Touch" is huge. I'm enjoying a long marriage (36 years now with a target of 50 years + health permitting). The disclaimer, health permitting, is what annoys me most about old age, the tentative nature of it all. Oh well, one day at a time has to be the motto and solution. Yes, if I were suddenly single, I'd enlist any measure to continue having touch in my life, paid cuddling, massage, dating sites, prostitutes (might be dangerous--beware), or just practicing my pickup lines at a local watering hole (this last one might be wishful thinking--probably best applied at senior center). Great and bold topic Ronni--I like your approach to life. John

I'm not single - have been married for 37 years and my husband and I are still affectionate. But I know I get my biggest share of cuddles from my grandchildren - we help with childcare one day a week, and while wrangling a three-year-old and a one-year-old (and sometimes their cousins along for the day, our older three grands: ages 9, 7, and 5) is not for the faint of heart (and knees!), the hugs and cuddles and tickles and sloppy kisses are all the reward I could ask for.

I have thought about this very topic - and consider myself fortunate that we are a "huggy" family - both our daughters, as well as the sons-in-law never say hello or good-bye without an embrace - sometimes more ritual than demonstrative, but always there.

way too much about couple love and above all, sexual touch, which is not a real need for women after menoausr especially. or even a want. anyone remeber annlanders letters about women 50 plus wanting only non sexual affections - forget the other - and sex therapists were aghast - what's so needed is non sexual affection family and friend affection too many women now try to be like men however - loveless sex and obsession with sex is the root of all evil
mightadd voice touch and on the phone is a kind of tuchign gwe need too blh blah blah says this voice in the wilderness and oh yes animal pals are an affection source we need. but so many elders can't afford them or re able to care for them without help attntion is not paid oh an nytimes fetures woman 7o who misses sex when her partner age 62 no longer wnts it. might add, men
look for yunger women. anyway again the unusual is featured not the usual who are lonely in general for people who care care that is the right word and caring genuine caring

I would think the reason pets are recommended for the elderly is just this. Not only for the companionship they provide but the physical aspect of the touching. A cat wrapping itself around your legs or settling in your lap, purring. Or a dog begging to get his ears scratched or head patted.

I have a husband who has long since stopped enjoying physical contact - it's a family thing - so I make an effort to hug him whenever possible. It has become a joke of sorts but he has been responding in kind. It's good for both of us!

Like you, I've lived alone for decades and without a partner for most of them. Yes, my dogs have helped immensely. That physical intimacy of keeping their fur brushed and their nails clipped is hugely important to me; to be physically needed anchors me somehow. Ollie is a loss in many ways, I'm sure.
At Mass every Sunday, there's a part where we shake hands with each other- some weeks, it's the only physical contact I have.
My sister lives nearby, though, and we're a huggy family, so that helps, too. I can't imagine having intercourse - way too painful after years of celibacy! -- but more often these days, I remember being in sexual relationships and feel a real stab of grief at the thought that those days are over.

Widowed 35 years ago, even though I have not been alone all those years, I really value a human touch. Just being able to reach across the dinner table to put my hand on a friend's arm is lovely. 7 years ago, when I was laid up
and in pain with a broken hip, one of the night nurses would come in and pet me. Not laying on of hands, but it certainly promoted healing.

At my fitness center there is a instructor who has a huge following of single older women in the Silver Sneakers classes. She ends every class with everyone giving out hugs. She says her research found that 8 hugs a day are needed for good mental health. Not sure if that is accurate, but her regulars hug each other till everyone has had 8 hugs. A few guys show up regularly too, but primarily women.

I think volunteering at a hospital that has a program for the newborns where you hold them etc. could be useful to feed that hunger.

I am blessed with a husband of 44 hrs. who needs hugs and kisses as much as I do. We are very affectionate and even do public displays of affection without concern, but too lazy for the crazy sex stuff we used to do in our younger days. LOL.

Yes. Nothing like a little brevity. LOL

Love this. I used to tell people that I get two massages/month cause I'm not getting laid.

I couldn't agree more. My husband passed on almost 8 years ago, and I live in a pretty huggy environment (friends, neighbors, church, volunteerism) but then the "Me Too" thing confused people. Hugging with female friends is warm and friendly, but I'm really missing the male hugs too. As with many others, this isn't a sexual thing with me. But the strength and warmth of a hug from a taller male is especially comforting to me.

I'm fortunate that I get my share of touching. My kids and their spouses are kissers and huggers and that has spread on to the grandchildren. My house-cleaner always hugs me when she arrives and also when she leaves. When I go grocery shopping (once a week) there are a couple clerks who always give me a hug. In fact, the town restaurant owner always gives me a hug when I go in. Guess it's the blessing for living in a small town where everybody knows you.

When I was attending College I was taking a course named "Normal Psychology" and after the course some us were standing in the hall chatting.

A woman member about 40 years old had been recently widowed and someone asked her what she missed most about her loss. She thought for a minute and finally said, "Being loved".

I think that casual hugs are nice, but cannot replace being loved. If it weren't for my daughter and granddaughters I think I would miss the human touch more. Solitude is fine as far as it goes, but it is only human to miss the primal need for sex or being held by a lover.

Sadly, I have not had that need fulfilled in so many years that I no longer think about it unless I respond to the topic in a blog or a discussion panel. I am most adaptable and learned long ago to accept my life as it is. Maybe I have submerged that desire along with the pragmatic acceptance of the knowledge that it will never happen for me now.

My husband and I still have each other. I know that makes us lucky. Hugs and strokes and back massages... these are things that won't last forever, so I treasure the daily chances to have them now. We're storing up memories for both of us, against that inevitable time when one of us will have to go it alone.

My husband died 5 years ago, and with him died the strong male arms around me. Yes, male.
I somehow feel embarrassed getting hugs from women. Its the strength of the arms and the smell of a man that is so comforting to me. A feeling of safety.
We had a great marriage that lasted 46 years, and, yes, plenty of sex. But we also had "nonsexual cuddles" when we were too tired for sex.
For me, a cuddle from a stranger would have no meaning whatsoever.
I have a much younger male friend, and when he visits I cant wait for him to leave so that I can enjoy a real good by bear hug. He is good at that!

Being an only child in a physically undemonstrative family seems to have prepared me for the lack of skin contact. Don't seem to miss it. Never really gave it much thought. Today's blog made me pause to consider that and I still concluded that it wasn't a problem in my life. Perhaps it just goes to prove once again that I'm as odd a duck as I always thought I was! ;-)

I'm a widow of 5 yrs. and this is so true. I'm not looking to get involved again and with no children either, touch is a thing of the past. I do know pets fill that gap to some degree.
And for me, it's the little touches or just their presence nearby. I long for that, not sex, but I just don't see a way to find it.

I hope the essay by Estelle in the class was well received and even understood. I've been a widow for 16 years now, but last year moved to Colorado with my son, daughter-in-law and 2 grandchildren ages 12 and 8. My 8 year old granddaughter is full of hugs, which is one of the wonderful things about intergenerational living. And I agree about pets filling a void, particularly on the bed. Maybe another cat for you after some time goes by?

I'm glad you can get back to massage. I do that too and find it a wonderful addition to my life.

Blessings, Ronni, and hugs all around.

Touch (both sexual and non-sexual) is one of the things I miss most at this time of my life. Divorce years ago, sudden death of a future partner, distance from friends/family; all these contribute to a lack of touch in my life. My income and transportation difficulties make it hard to get out and about, to volunteer, to put myself where human interaction is easier. I have a cat, and he certainly helps. But it just isn't the same as having another human's arms wrapped about me; especially with someone with whom I share a history.

The saddest or worst part is I know this lack of interaction and touch have a detrimental effect on me. And it is sadder yet to know so many others share this loss of touch in their lives.

I am a hugger.

Am hugging all of you right now.

A Montreal hug.

Are you ready?

Here goes.

((((((((((((((((((((((((((((Ronni and friends)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

An all star hug happened at the Los Angeles Airport I. 1998.

I flew in from KL after teaching ESL in Thailand.

My husband was waiting at the airport.

He was the hugger.

My closest friend (since 1963) and I love being together; but, we do not engage in touching. She doesn't want to be touched nor do I. The last thing I would value/want would be to have a massage. Different strokes for different folks.

I agree that touch is important...my husband and I take turns initiating touching our hands, patting each other, hugs, and kisses and he always rubs my feet at night while I put in my eye drops.

I guess I am lucky because I am able at 78 to still have friends who hug. Even my prior co-workers who meet for lunch every 2 months exchange hugs when greeting and saying adios.

My kitty cats supply lots of contact, and comfort, lay on my lap or my chest , one of them more that her sister. I have several women friends and when we get together for lunch we always hug each other, also my student in the library literacy program and I hug when we say good-bye. She told me once that she came from a family that did not show affection so she likes this as much as I do and after our more than 3 years together we have developed a great friendship. My children are great huggers but I do not get to see them very often except for my daughter and we make a point of visiting each other several times a month. My 6 Grandchildren are all grown up and I rarely see them now.

I have single women friends who regularly get a massage which is important and I look forward to my pedicure where the little woman gives me a calf, foot rub....and pretty toe nails....she is the only one I have to pay and do so gladly as it is so relaxing to be pampered. I hope this topic helps others who are alone to find ways to get touch in their lives.

Freely given hugs with no sexual implication between both genders and at all ages in my immediate household has been and still is a given. Unfortunately, the few of us left are so geographically separated and infrequently able to be together that I, having been a widow over a decade now, do miss the touching -- though it had become absent for many of the later years from my husband given some of his issues. I know not all people are comfortable with that feeling expression as two younger dear friends have wondered why that was true of them -- both married a long time, one happily, the other divorced (now deceased) who later determined that she was first gay, then later bisexual. One thought it was a reflection of a non-demonstrative family in which she grew up.

I think it's important to respect people's comfort zones, even asking first if someone would welcome a hug. Seeking that permission is important and given some of the issues prevalent today can be wise. Working with a primarily adult population, including older people, for the past twenty or more years, I was necessarily attuned to those sensitivities. I was often unconsciously spontaneously inclined to reach out and pat a shoulder, offer rewarding encouragement by placing my hand over that of another, or even occasionally receiving emotional hugging expressions from unrelated others.

Some of those men and women I observed with other people clearly were reaching out to touch and seeking or welcoming touch from others, offering to give or receive hugs. There was a "huggy bear" (woman in a bear costume who also distributed a hug saying on a business card) that arranged to come into some of the facilities where I provided services. She visited residents and staff alike spreading her warm affection. I never saw anyone reject her hug and many deliberately sought one.

Animals elicited positive reactions from most people. I would certainly value having a pet now, but after weighing the pros and cons concluded I didn't want that responsibility at this stage in my life -- especially with no one close by to care for the creature if I suddenly wanted to be away, plus I didn't want the expense of boarding the animal in such a circumstance. An older pet might seem like a good idea, but the odds are, if it's anything like cats and dogs I've previously had, just like people they have aging medical issues which can mean vet visits, added expense and confining me to provide even more care.

Oh, I meant to add having read some time ago stories about cuddlers for hire. I thought the idea intriguing, probably attractive to some people, but not my cup of tea. The hugging experience for me is richest when I have some personal connection with the hugger or the one I'm hugging.

I was so glad to see the title of your blog today. After I was divorced "skin hunger" was something I thought I had named - because it so perfectly described how I felt. And it wasn't just about sex. As a nurse (retired now) I know that the simple laying on of hands - just a reassuring touch on someone's hand or a pat on the shoulder - has a powerful healing effect. I worked for years in a school where other staff were advised to never touch the student. I told my employer that I would never hesitate to touch a student - that was my job, to comfort, reassure, assess. It was how I could determine whether someone was in shock, dehydrated, suffering from hypothermia. Luckily nurses are generally trusted so touch by a nurse wasn't questioned. How sad that a teacher can't hug a student! I truly believe that much of the problems of the world today are the result of our isolation and our lack of connection with each other and a friendly touch (of the hand even) could change so much.

As a retired School nurse myself, I so agree with Carol's comments. Without touching a frightened or hurt child a nurse would be like a carpenter trying to build a house without tools. It calms and comforts like nothing else could.

And now after 7 years as a widow, I truly understand the punch lines in a very old bit of comedy from 'Minnie Pearl' , a regular on "The Grand Old Opry'" out of Nashville TN. Maybe some of you will remember her.

She was explaining an experience with a mugger that caused her rumpled appearance. He took her $11. out of her purse but was sure she had more hidden somewhere, so he frisked her all over, and said, "Are you sure you don't have any more money?" She told him "No son, I don't, but if you'll do that again, I'll write you a check !"

And after all these years, it still makes me laugh. She lasted over 50 years on TV doing what she did best...country humor.

I understand, and agree about missing human touch. But from a stranger? - meaningless.

I now think back on those times when I'd had a stupid fight with my husband, and deliberately moved away when we accidently came close. Regrets? you betcha.

Ronni, I so often want to respond to your column topic, but don't get it done. Now you have written 2 posts that I MUST comment on. I am so sorry for your loss of Ollie--my heart just plain ached when I heard of his death. As an old (85), single woman living alone, my Amber kitty ( see my archives in Elderstorytelling, if you care to) is my comfort and joy. Five years after rescuing her from a shelter where she was born and waited 3 1/2 years for me, I still marvel that there is another living, breathing creature sharing my space with me. I feel like I would die of a broken heart were she to pre-decease me. Touch. I worked in nursing homes and sang in them for many years. and although they loved the music, the best part for them, I often felt, was when I touched their hands afterward. I often felt skin hunger after my 22-year marriage ended, and there were periods of time between lovers. I spoke of it with my other single women friends. Now, having chosen not to go down that road for about 25 years, I am satisfied with the many hugs I get on weekends from young friends at my music events. Most are from young people the age of my children who live far away, as do my grands and great-grands, and I am so lucky to have this life. I must admit, although I love all of the hugs, the ones from young, strong men are the best and I usually get 10 or so each weekend. As the "grande dame of folk music in the Hudson Valley" (my unofficial title) I get a lot of spontaneous hugs, but I am not above asking for them, too.

Hello All. This might be a topic for all of us, or, maybe, it is just me. I enjoy and have earned my right to be cranky, discerning and upholding of long standing traditions. Isn't this what comes with being older? I think it is ok to be a standard bearer. Not to sanction being rude in response. Oh no, but inward crankiness is really ok. Enjoy it and note the changes. The world is different and some things do not delight. That is ok for us to acknowledge. I accept this about myself. I needn't have sweetness and smiles all of the time. It's ok to be honest.

As to hugs, hugs go to those I care about. Why would I want to hug someone I don't know? It's ok to have that reserve, I say. I really don't have to love everyone. Hell, I don't even like everyone.


This wonderful post reminded me of an old (author unknown) Italian poem called
Toccami (Touch Me)

If I am your baby,
Please touch me.
I need your caress in a manner that I will always remember
Hold me tight, kiss me.
Your gentle affection sends security and love.
Your goodnight embrace sweetens my dreams.

If I am your son/daughter,
Please, touch me.
Don't think that I am now too big and that I no longer need your embrace.
I want to hear your tender voice;
To know that you care and that I am still important to you
When life remains difficult, and the child in me returns.

If I am you friend,
Please touch me.
An affectionate embrace tells me that you care.
A caressing gesture when I am sad
May perhaps be the only comfort I receive.
It reassures me that you love me, that I'm not alone

If I am your lover,
Please touch me.
Perhaps you think that your passion is enough.
But only your embrace relieves my fears.
I need your touch to give me comfort and tenderness.
It causes me to remember that I am loved just because I am me.

If I am your aged parent,
Please touch me as I was touched when I was a baby
Hold my hand, sit close beside me.
Give me strength, warmth, support.
My wrinkled skin still loves your caresses.
Don't be afraid,
Please, Only touch me.

To demonstrate the power of touch, there is a little experiment that was carried out at the Cornell U. school of Hotel and Restaurant management.
The school owns and runs a restaurant open to the public.
Half the servers were instructed to gently touch the shoulders of the diners while handing them the menu. The other half did not.
Practically all of the "touched" diners gave their servers bigger tips than those who were not touched.

So many interesting and enjoyable comments. Thanks to all who participate. I was particularly touched by the endearing poem posted by Patricia Edie,"Touch Me". It was food for thought and memory though each verse.

And like Patricia I was "reminded" of a brief bit from a Martin Buber's writings I have saved. A little heavy with the wording of an old Jewish philosopher, but seems true to me.
Keeping in mind his term 'man' is of course all mankind. A simple, even brief touch can give that blessing/confirmation I seem to need at this end of life.

"Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other...secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another." Martin Buber

My parents were wonderful, but they weren't huggers, so I didn't grow up with hugs and touches. However, after living a few years in Brasil, and then managing a project that was implemented in Guatemala and Honduras and required my traveling back and forth, I learned how good it was to hug and touch. Once, coming back to the USA after a trip to Guatemala, I instinctively started to hug our organization's finance person in the office and she pulled back, almost astonished. :-) I brought hugs and touches into my family (parents, siblings) and definitely in my own family (my children, daughters-in-law, son-in-law, grandchildren) hugs and touches happen a lot! It feels good.

Oh no!! Ollie!!!

The comments to this entry are closed.