Caring Currents

2009: The Year of the Hug?

Last updated: Dec 30, 2008

Cats - Hugging
Image by HdO ~ Helene used under the creative commons attribution license.

Of the many caregiving ideas I pick up every year, one stuck with me throughout 2008. A geriatric care manager mentioned its unsung benefits to me one day when I was looking for tips on communicating with my 87-year-old dad. It's practical and simple, if not particularly revolutionary. Health experts, gerontologists, and caregiving experts alike endorse it. And I've given it a test-run and found works!

The idea: The potency of a hug.

I confess that just writing those three letters  -- h-u-g  -- feels vaguely maudlin. I'm not a natural hugger myself. I didn't grow up in a huggy household (except for fighting over which of us got to sit on Gram's lap and cuddle). I still find it awkward that hugs have replaced handshakes in many offices.

But to many sick, lonely, or otherwise stressed loved ones, there's nothing like it.  Research on "therapeutic touch" is mixed. It probably can't actually heal illness. But human touch been shown to lower perception of pain, boost mood, reduce stress hormones, enhance attentiveness, and improve immune function – not a bad bunch of benefits. Hugging has also releases the "bonding" hormone oxytocin, especially in women.

Hugging makes the recipient feel loved and important -- welcome feelings amid the indignities of getting older.

Last week CNN's Sanjay Gupta filed moving story about an 89-year-old man I'd read about this summer in the Boston Globe, who feels that hugging, caressing and "loving up" his wife, who has severe Alzheimer's, has made her calmer and even more verbal. The same day, I learned about a couple from Ohio who  just finished backpacking 4,800 miles cross-country this year to hug 1 million people in honor of his mom, who has early-onset dementia.

Hug power, indeed. Maybe that's why this holiday season it seemed like there were more people offering free hugs on street corners than ringing Salvation Army bells. Credit the Free Hug Campaign, a freeform movement of no-strings-attached hugs to strangers that started in Australia a few years ago.

In 2009, try doling out some free hugs to your own elders. A hug can:

  • Underscore how glad you are to see them. (Humans of all ages are wired to read actions more clearly than words.)
  • Grease an awkward conversation about driving or finances.
  • Express what's otherwise hard for you to put into words.
  • Let someone with severe illness know you're present.
  • Help ease agitation, restlessness, and pacing in someone with Alzheimer's. (Canadian researchers this year found this to be true.)
  • Communicate your support to a fellow caregiver or the person who helps take care of your parent.
  • Say thanks.

And mark your calendar: January 21 is National Hugging Day. (Live far away? Send a hug coupon and pencil in a visit.)