ELDER MUSIC: Classical Predilections 4

Skin Hunger and Elders

”Touch is the most primitive of all the senses,” explains a physician writing in Psychology Today two years ago. ”It is the first sense to develop, and is already present from just eight weeks of gestation...

“Compared to children, adults are less dependent on touch, but older adults, who tend to be more alone, more vulnerable, and more self-aware, are likely to need considerably more skin contact than their younger counterparts.

“Therapy animals have become common in care homes, and, despite a lifetime of reservations, residents can be encouraged to hold hands or rub each other’s shoulders.”

Even with all the joy and solace pets can provide, I have my personal doubts about therapy animals - not to be confused with robot animals – but both seem to work for some people.

And a good thing that is because the older we get, the fewer friends we have. Last time I wrote about skin hunger here six years ago, one quotation made that poignantly clear (the source website no longer exists):

“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.'”

I know something about that feeling and I have no doubt some of you do too. You can't get as old as some of us are without our social circles shrinking.

Studies have shown, according to Newsday, that people who are significantly devoid of human contact or who resist or avoid touch, could be at a higher risk for experiencing depression and stress. They are likely to be less happy, more lonely, and in general have worse health...”

Further, according to Newsday,

”Satisfying your skin hunger requires you to have meaningful physical contact with another person. Although many people satisfy their skin hunger through sex, or in fact, confuse the need for touch with the need for sex, skin hunger isn't really a sexual need...

“Neuro-chemically, human touch releases the hormone oxytocin, which is shown to be integral to human bonding and in intimacy. Showing affection physically to those closest to us, from something as simple as a pat on the shoulder or back rub, or a hug establishes trust and communicates a commitment to them, and their well being, as well as to bonding with them.”

There are studies, too, showing that as little as 15 minutes a day of touching usually bring benefits. Further, according to The Atlantic,

Studies that involved as little as 15 daily minutes found that touch alone, even devoid of the other supportive qualities it usually signifies, seems to have myriad benefits...

And from The New Yorker:

“In her New York Times Modern Love essay, writer Michelle Fiordaliso makes the case for unexpected moments of intimacy between strangers. 'Touch solidifies something – an introduction, a salutation, a feeling, empathy,' she writes.”

Evidence has been piling up for years that from cradle to grave, the human touch is a necessity to our wellbeing. Newborns who are not held and cuddled do not thrive. And neither do old people. In one series of studies,

”...one group of elderly participants received regular, conversation-filled social visits while another received social visits that also included massage; the second group saw emotional and cognitive benefits over and above those of the first.”

We are living, in these current times, in a touch-free environment, where touching one another is seen as dangerous.

Maria Konnokova reported in her New Yorker story:

”Recently, the Toronto District School Board warned its employees that 'there is no safe touch when you work with children.' Many of our kids spend most of the day in a touch-free zone.

“We don’t mind getting a massage, but we fear embracing touch wholeheartedly, either because we think it’s dangerous, in the case of young children, or 'touchy-feely,' in the case of adults. We await what Tiffany Field, in 1998, called 'a shift in the social-political attitude toward touch.'”

Why wait? The evidence is strong that touching appears to help keep us healthy. Why not start changing this now?


My inclination is to use touch whenever appropriate, which means giving a two-handed greeting with newer acquaintances, or a hug or cheek kiss with known friends and family. This often includes conveying a feeling through eye contact.

Some people show the opposite preference with a pulling back and that's noticed and respected. Others give out a strong sense to keep distance.

I'm needy? Overreaching? Rude? Okay, so sue me. This is really a small thing with big payoffs, a cheap and easy win-win, so I choose this manner rather than its opposite.

Don't we want touch as we age, realizing it's rejuvenating to our entire body and brain. I've noticed how much I look forward to having a hair cut, and it's for the extended head massage that lasts far short of my wishes. *sigh*

Ironically, just prior to reading today's post, I had just sent my wife a text thanking her for her continuing interest in maintaining our physical and/or "touch" relationship. Thank You Ronni for addressing this important topic.

I’m reminded of the time my doctor gently touched my forehead as she asked a question. Oddly (I thought) that touch brought tears to my eyes.

The Cornell School of Hotel management did a study a few years back.
Half of the female servers in their student run restaurant were told to gently touch the male customers on the shoulder as they were ordering. The other half of the servers did not touch the customers. The "touchy" servers received larger tips than the hands-off group. Young or old, we all need human contact.

And of course, this brings up the controversy about Joe Biden's touching. I love people who touch.

Not sure where to begin, but this post is so important and sad at the same time. Touch is so key, it calms the nervous system, releases oxytocin, and makes us feel less alone. Personally, reading this made me realize how I crave and miss being touched, and how the body sort of 'holds in' it's needs in this regard. I do hug others, mindfully. I've been known to have regular massages, and as wonderful as this is, it does not take the place of a loving touch on the hand, shoulder or ? that communicates care and connection. The sad part is climate of fear of being misunderstand that is making touching others in a casual and respectful way more prohibitive than ever. Reading this, I'm actually going to begin seeking out more ways to touch...perhaps join a Healing Touch group.

Touching has become so politicized! It's really a shame that a spontaneous, kind gesture might be used against you one day. I remember some of my dad's patients telling me how reassuring his touch was when they were in the hospital. They remembered and appreciated the gentle gesture.

I hug at every opportunity. Most people love it, hug me back! It's asexual and non-threatening, although there are some people I don't hug; I guess they wouldn't like it.

I immediately thought of Joe Biden, also. It's such a shame that the creeps ruined it for well-intentioned people.

It's hard for me to stand up out of my chair into a regulation hug these days. Tends to leave me breathless and panting. I am trying to teach my family that the kind of hug I like now is a hand gently cupped on my cheek. I like it better than someone stroking my back.

This isn't a new thing. It's a 'me' thing. Light pressure on my cheek has been comforting my whole life long... it's why I was a side sleeper until oxygen at night and the need to sleep with my head raised made me have to sleep on my back. I miss it. But more than that, I'm thinking ahead. They will be able to hug me that way even after I am bed-ridden... even right up until the end.

Definitely feel the impact of this blog entry! I have always been a “tactile” person- I give hugs at the least provocation but since I now live alone, my husband is dead, I sometimes go a whole week without the touch of another human! Thank goodness for my pets- not the same but provide some help with that ‘all alone’ feeling.

I have always thought that many of my older, single acquaintances go to chiropractors for much of their health care, because of the touch.

Personally, I can easily live without all the hugging.
I hate strangers who want to hug or get too physically close.
I do have a support dog and he has changed my life for the better. He gives me someone to care for and when I'm sad he is there.
Just as someone might not understand my not liking hugs, I do not understand how anyone could not like a support dog.

I had a beloved doberman pincher some years ago who weighed in at a muscular 90 pounds. He was a certified therapy dog. We spent many years going to nursing homes where he had quite the following. He was gentle and kind and sensed how much contact the individual seniors needed and wanted. It was beautiful to see the joy he brought to many residents and then to hear their stories of their own beloved pets. Because of his size, he was at wheel chair level and this too with beds. He would reach his head across the bed so that elderly people who were unable to move could touch him. One such gentleman loved our visits and my dog would place his head on the bed so the man could inch his hand forward for contact. How much it meant. The gentleman could not lift his head and was completely prone. I have tears in my eyes remembering how my dog would then push his nose forward to make the connection. The smiles would begin. Wonderful memories and yes, touch does matter to all human being no matter what age.

Karin and her dog, Nigel who is no longer with us.

This is a subject I have given thought to. I feel that I am lucky to have younger grandchildren who live nearby and are still of an age to like to sit close and cuddle while we read a book or just talk. That loving contact creates a sense of happiness for me, and hopefully for them, too.

I am from a huggy family - we always hug whenever we see each other - my daughters, their husbands, the children.

My father, who lived to 97, always used to cup my face in his hands when we would meet, and give me a kiss on the forehead, even when I was well into my 60s. I miss that. I have thought that what he did was probably in a similar vein as the touches of Joe Biden. It really IS sad that there has been such an outcry against any sort of physical contact, although I have to admit that when I was asked if Joe had ever made similar overtures to other men, or to women who were of higher ranking than he was , it made me stop and ponder a bit.

I recently saw an aggressive post on Facebook by a woman I know who is in her mid 30s, and what she said was startling to me. She maintained that ANY unanticipated touching from ANYONE was a "trigger" for many people (particularly women) and should never happen. Even a tap on the shoulder or a gentle nudge. My first thought was that this attitude is the trend-of-the-day, the fad-of-the-week, sort of like being gluten intolerant or not being able to go to the grocery store without one's emotional support animal . (Sorry not sorry if that offends anyone)

". . . the older we get, the fewer friends we have."

Oh, thank you, thank you, for saying that. I've been worrying for years that it's just that I'm somehow less likeable than I used to be.

As for touch: Yes. I have a dog and a cat--great--and I do go to a body-worker every other week for my back, and he always gives me a hug. And I belong to a group that always joins hands at the end of our meeting. So. We do what we can.

Very good topic. I have two different 90 minute massages every month and tell people it's because I'm not getting laid. And I hug and otherwise touch people in the retirement community where I live when I can, for both our benefits. Weekly hugs at Al-Anon. Pats on the back for youngish people who need them also.

I come from arms-length country. Not too close, please. But I notice that people are hugging much more lately so I'm working on it. Making progress but still a little awkward.

Eight years ago I taught ESL to a group of seven senior Afghan women- all former teachers in Kabul before they were forced to quit their jobs when war broke out.

They managed to legally emigrate to Canada with their families. I taught them for seven months in a small community center where they catered Afghan food and ran a community kitchen.

Learning their stories was a great experience.

The term ended.

We wished each other success.

It's eight years later.

The group invited me to their new location downtown.

I took the BMW to their new space today. (Bus, Metro, Walk)

Eight years later...

Would they even remember me?

I walked into the building.

My former students walked in.

You can only imagine the hugs!

My Irish wife taught me and our 3 kids to hug and say I love you.” What a blessing to this German-Hungarian non-toucher! Our 27 yr old son was killed 25 years ago. How I miss the feel of his embrace.

IMHO — When it comes to touch and hugs, simply respect an individual’s personal space. Don't assume because you feel like hugging the other person you might not even know well wants a hug. You can usually discern by non-verbal reactions, your relationship with the person, whether or not they welcome the physical intimacy of a touch or hug. In some cases I’ve been asked, or I’ve asked, “Can I give you a hug?”

I often engaged in various touch interactions with therapy patients of all ages, other residents in various settings. My best friend here has long asked herself why she’s uncomfortable with hugs, even within her family, must less others, but has chosen to keep working on it as she, her husband and I do hugs when we haven’t seen each other for awhile, or when we part. (Her body often feels stiff.)

Perhaps for some, the comfort level, if not a medical reason present for a few, reflects family practices beginning when they were children. Another friend years ago had a period of questioning her sexuality so began avoiding hugs. Coincidentally, I just read an interview with Dr. Ruth who is a strong proponent of the value of touch as am I. I recall an older relative who had experienced many care-giving years with a spouse whose cognitive being and personality had long-since departed his body. She eventually responded to a flood of subjugated feelings and touch following her husband’s death in her eighth decade — becoming rejuvenated and talked of encountering others experiencing the same.

Pet therapy is a very effective tool that can emotionally stimulate some individuals who have been unresponsive, even elicit speech from some who have been non-verbal. It is important to establish a person is pet-oriented first.

The benefit of touch is a pertinent topic at any age, but as a widow I do feel deprived of touch experiences. Though I’m not a country music fan, Charlie Rich’s “Every Time You Touch Me I Get High” (YouTube video) has especially resonated with me. Since my family members live so far away— audio and video calls, written messages do have their limits for touching, hugging intimate connections as does blogging.

I love hugging and touching, and am also very aware that many do not. I fantasize quite a bit about being held, walking hand in hand, what some call "safe touch." My little dog helps some in this department. I miss the ordinary daily embracing of my marriage way more than I do the sex. My family of origin was not physically warm. Lots of pecks on the cheeks, hello....peck, goodbye.......peck, good morning......peck, good night.......peck. As I grew older, I slowly introduced hugging to my mom, who, at first, was very stand offish, but then really enjoyed it as the years went by.

I can imagine this is one of the joys of having grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- holding them is such sweet contact. I get an occasional taste of that with grandnephews and -nieces.

Since being widowed I've thought a lot about another meaning of touch, one that hugs with friends and warm handshakes can't substitute for.

Those who are "primary" to us are usually parents, significant other(s), and children. Grandchildren are an added bonus. These are the people to whom you vitally matter, the ones who are upfront in your thoughts, and who also have your back, at all times. They are the trunk of the tree of life.

I sometimes think of it as those you've shared bodily fluids with. (Obviously, adoption is no barrier to sharing bodily fluids in enough ways.) The main stream. Though families differ widely in how physically demonstrative they are, these are basically the people with whom skin is no barrier. You are "one flesh," as the Bible has it.

Siblings and friends can be really important , but this rarely becomes a *primary* adult relationship unless both parties have lost their "primaries." Siblings are more like your arms and legs: they aren't constantly in the forefront of your thoughts, but you'll feel mutilated if you lose them. Friends . . . we can't live without friends. They are "chosen family," but the relationship tends not to be tactile beyond hello and goodbye. And, if you are widowed and they are not, they don't have as much attention free for you as you do for them; their primaries naturally come first. That's what so vividly brought this concept home to me. A lot of people felt essential to me, in the absence of a significant other, but I didn't feel essential, primary, to them -- to anyone but my still-living mom, all the more explicitly so since she too was widowed.

This may be one of the main reasons for finding a relationship at any age. Sex, if it happens, is as much an excuse to touch lingeringly as anything. And *sleeping together* is one prolonged festival of battery recharging, not even requiring consciousness. (On this score I highly recommend the novel Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, by the way.) But even beyond touch, that feeling of mattering to someone in a primary way, being central to their thoughts, essential to their life, puts you on the map like nothing else. (I imagine, Ronni, you may have gained that when you found your son.)

All these musings are on the occasion of my just spending a night and two surrounding days with a man. (I am 73, he is 64.) It's very much a first -- 16 years since my husband could no longer make love (at least "the old-fashioned way") and almost 13 years since we had to stop sharing a bed because he needed a hospital bed. It's a shock to the system, but a good shock. Imagine a fish that had somehow managed, with difficulty, to survive for years on land, is pretty much resigned to it, and is then thrown back in the water.

Excellent, Annie, in all forms, needs and wants mentioned.
Well-spoken and loved reading your heartfelt thoughts.

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