Full disclosure: I am not a PDA kind of girl. The above title is actually a direct (and frequently used) quote from a college boyfriend who was contrarily very into public displays of affection. He was super huggy and kissy regardless of where we were or who was around, and the fact that I wasn’t drove him nuts; a quick peck to appease him was clearly insufficient, hence the “kiss me like you mean it.” Don’t get me wrong, behind closed doors is a completely different story – I am beyond affectionate, playful, and even huggy-kissy. There are only two instances in which you’ll witness that side of me in public, however: with dogs (surprise, surprise 😉 ) and with my loves.
I am a huge advocate for touch. Numerous studies have proven that it’s not only essential for our development, it is also necessary for us to grow, learn, and literally survive and thrive. From infancy, touch is used to both communicate and to heal; a loving caress releases oxytocin and instantaneously boosts one’s mood, strengthens the immune system, and reduces stress. It’s not one-sided, either: there is evidence that the person doing the touching gets just as much benefit as he or she being touched. Incorporating even the simplest pats with other forms of communication increases connectedness, improves attitudes, and calms nerves. We are biologically wired to the need to connect with others on a basic physical level, and it’s something we don’t grow out of.
I’m not alone in being anti-PDA; we are a seriously touch-phobic society. The resultant touch deprivation in the elderly is alarming, especially for those who are frail or demented. Such deficiency leads to feelings of isolation, anxiety, poor trust in caregivers, a greater decrease in sensory awareness, and insecurity – the last thing they f’ing need. As if dementia didn’t leave one feeling frightened and alone enough, our lack of intimacy just kicks a nonna while she’s down, as to deny it is to deprive her of one of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.
It’s not just our nonnos we’re depriving, either: a study from the 1960s looked at café conversations all over the world. In France, friends touched each other 110 times per hour. Puerto Ricans beat them by 70 – a whopping 180 touches were recorded in the span of 60 minutes. In the US? Twice. In “bursts of enthusiasm,” we touched each other twice. 😐
Touch is the universal language of compassion. When words are no longer understood, there is no better substitute than a gentle hug or holding hands. In old age especially, the need for physical affection is more powerful than ever, for it is one of the only sensuous experience that remains. It is one of the few persisting methods of communicating with a nonna of limited cognitive function, and its effects are both physically and emotionally favorable. In a study that examined the impact of touch on appetite in picky elderly eaters, all participants had a significant increase in caloric intake when given a gentle touch and spoken to during mealtime. Additionally, a study on dementia patients proved that touch is calming; all residents who received hand massages presented significantly less agitated than those who did not.
Sources of proof are endless; there is no question that affection is insanely beneficial to seniors (and to the rest of us!). How we choose to implement it in our daily practice is subjective. In my own experiences, I have found that while being huggy-kissy with boys makes my eyes roll, doing so with my loves is invaluable. I greet nearly every resident with a kiss.. I don’t care if they’ve got half their lunch on their lap or if they’ve had a cold for days, I’m wrapping my arms around them and kissing their cheeks (don’t worry Dad, I wash my hands). If a nonno’s in a wheelchair, I crouch beside him and rest my hand on his knee. I’ll walk arm-in-arm with nonnas and cozy up on the edge of their recliner when we rest. I’ll sit right on that hospital bed, my fingers locked with theirs, regardless of cognizance or how tightly they grasp back. If there are tears (God, I hate when there are tears), I softly wipe them dry. I kiss them like I mean it, and honestly, the impact is immeasurable.