Touch Often Absent for Isolated Seniors

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Most people appreciate touch — a heartfelt hug, warm handshake, an arm around the shoulders or a friendly pat on the arm.

Touch is the earliest way people communicate as infants and can be the only means of connection for people in the last stages of dementia and those with profound brain trauma.

For many older adults who live by themselves, touch is not a part of their lives anymore. Especially in light of the COVID-19 quarantine, touch has been even more limited.

But touch is important on many levels.

“As people age, a lot of their support system may diminish over time,” said Corey Leidenfrost, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Partners and friends pass away. Someone’s social circle may decrease over time. Touch and being close to people is important at all ports of your lifetime.”

He further stated that since physical touch is tied to a person’s overall wellbeing and satisfaction with life, “it’s a crucial aspect of making life worth living.”

Abundant research has connected physical touch to good health. Shira Gabriel, social psychologist with University at Buffalo, specializes in the human need for social connection. Gabriel cited premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“They grow better and are discharged faster if they’re touched,” she said. “Even having a stranger touch you reduces stress hormones and having it from those you care about helps. Touch makes difficult situations better. Now, it’s difficult since we can’t touch people as much.”

In lieu of hugs from grandchildren, she encourages older adults to connect through electronics, although it’s not ideal. Once social isolation ends for older adults, she hopes more children and grandchildren take the time to visit the older adults in their lives.

Some older adults who lack family in the area could find a physical connection through spa services once they’re available — they can have a facial, manicure, pedicure, hair styling or massage therapy. Gabriel said that for those who don’t feel sure if massage therapy is right for them, “a chair massage is a great idea if they have the resources.”

Massage therapists ask about any pre-existing health conditions and allow clients to wear clothing and drapes that help them feel at ease and comfortable with the temperature. Typically, chair massage clients remain fully clothed.

Shawn Marie Cichowski, life and energy coach, certified mindfulness and meditation instructor, and owner of the WNY Life Coaching Center in Williamsville, said that touch is “innate and healing. If we’re in pain, we naturally hold the area. It’s about caring and healing when we touch.”

While human interaction may seem the only type of touch that helps, animal connections can also help. Petting soft fur and receiving the reciprocating sniffs and licks does make a difference. Though it’s difficult to say how much animals understand and tune into human emotions, Cichowski said that animal interactions “are very therapeutic and healing. It’s reassuring and comforting. Their love is unconditional.”

Cheri Roloson, farm manager at Cracker Box Palace in Alton, welcomes guests who want to visit with the animals and, if possible, volunteer at the farm animal shelter.

“People who are into chickens and potbellied pigs will tell you that they’re personable animals,” Roloson said. “I swear by having an animal as a companion.”

The farmplaces animals for adoption and also offers a sponsor program that allows volunteers to care for their “Pen Pal” at the farm. But just dropping by the farm when it’s open to pet animals is okay, too.