After nearly two years of social distancing, many of us long to touch and be touched.
“On my walk today, I had a fleeting thought: I may never get to hug anyone ever again. That would be really sad, but it’s going to be true for so many people as ’social distancing’ becomes our credo and our survival mechanism.”
Those words were from the first page of a new journal I started in March 2020 amid the first wave of shutdowns prompted by the global rise of COVID-19. Widowed for two years, it wasn’t as if I had been getting much physical contact before the pandemic began. It had already been nearly three months since I’d seen and hugged my far-flung relatives at Christmas. I was not dating, I had no “pod,” and I didn’t even have a pet to cuddle. But as I wrote in my journal, I knew I was far from alone in my loneliness.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, many things have gotten better, yet we are all haunted by what we have missed—and especially who we are missing. I still grieve the loss of my friend Kelly, a talented pianist who had lived with dementia for several years. Her husband couldn’t be with her as she succumbed to the coronavirus, and it was months before her family was able to hold a memorial service. Of course, most of us had to attend on Zoom, and no comforting hugs were possible.
During daily walks early in the pandemic, I enjoyed my neighbors’ nods and waves—and the eye-crinkling smiles we shared from behind our masks—yet I yearned for something more. One morning, rounding the corner in front of at Aegis Living Ravenna in northeast Seattle, I spotted a tree small enough to get my arms around, so I spontaneously hugged it. I repeated the gesture many times in the months to come, sometimes musing that a resident of the assisted living center would look out her window at just the right moment and smile at the sight.
Sadly, however, tree-hugging couldn’t give me what scientists say we get from touching and being touched. According to Francis McGlone and Susannah Walker, faculty at Liverpool John Moores University in England, humans have evolved to translate touch into emotional wellbeing. Hugs and caresses stimulate the release of endorphins and the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Touch also helps us sleep better, reduces stress, and boosts our immune response. Human touch is something most of us need. When we don’t have it, we must adapt.
That’s what residents and the staff at Aegis Ravenna and other senior living communities have been doing throughout the pandemic. At the outset of COVID, “there was no touch,” says Chris Corrigall, vice president of life enrichment for Bellevue-based Aegis Living. But as weeks turned into months, “We had to look at the social and emotional wellness of our residents,” he adds, especially when it came to curbing isolation and creatively structuring visits once they were allowed under local health guidelines. The emphasis was on filling the greatest voids in people’s lives, whether through pet therapy, outdoor living rooms and virtual spaces where loved ones could spend time together, or steady doses of daily conversation and interaction with staff.
When it was safe to do so, the Aegis communities brought back an acupressure program called “Comfort Touch.” But nothing could beat the first full-on bear hugs once the pandemic eased. Says Corrigall, “As soon as our residents were allowed to have a family member visit them in their apartment,” following all guidelines for vaccinations or negative COVID tests, people have been allowed to exchange hugs. “There’s all this pent-up emotion and wonderful reunification energy that is happening now and it’s been wonderful for everyone,” he says.
Animal companions can also provide the same sort of reassurance that, despite much evidence to the contrary, all is well in the world. For much of the pandemic, the nonprofit Animals as Natural Therapy couldn’t allow the human-critter contacts that are at the heart of its programs, though it did offer window visits where people could at least see, if not touch, another living thing. In the summer of 2021, however, the nonprofit was able to resume regular outdoor visits with at least one client, Silverado Bellingham Memory Care Community.
“We’ve done a few visits out there where we bring our horses and goats and chickens and rabbits and sometimes a staff member’s dog,” says Lindsey Witus, the mobile team coordinator. “It’s been amazing to see the smiles and sometimes tears and so much emotion that comes along with visitors of any kind,” along with memories of past beloved animals that can come flooding back. Adds Witus, “It’s been nice to do the window visits, but there’s nothing that can really replace actually being hands-on.”
My own story has taken a few happy turns over the past six months. After a hug-less rendezvous at an Oregon state park for my birthday in 2020, my daughter and I met in Boise on Mother’s Day weekend 2021, and finally shared the sort of warm embrace we’d been denied for more than a year. Then came a lovely summer night at a campsite near the shores of Puget Sound, when an acquaintance of mine, someone with whom I’d been texting for a few weeks, joined me to escape Western Washington’s record-setting heat wave. “Bring your own tent,” I joked. We bid the sun goodbye and talked for many hours before the night ended with us holding hands and sharing a long hug that hinted at something more. At that moment, though, a hug was more than enough.
The lingering pandemic—and modern life in general—continues to limit human connection for many people, an especially poignant fact as we near another holiday season. “At the point we’re able to get back to pre- COVID, that’s going to be a wonderful victory for us,” says Corrigall from Aegis. As a new year draws nigh, may we look with hope toward a future of unfettered hugs for everyone who wants them.
Julie Fanselow is a frequent contributor to 3rd Act. Read more from her at SurelyJoy.com.