November 19, 2019

Who Will Hug Me When I’m Old?

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This Yom Kippur, I relied on three pastimes to help me through synagogue services: connecting with God as a loving redeemer, imagining what glorious food I would eat to break the fast, and people watching.

There’s a lot to be said for watching people during prayer, if you know what to look at:  faces.

This year, I studied the faces of a lot of older congregants. Some faces looked tired, others grateful. All were beautiful.

When the Day of Judgment ended, younger congregants hugged one another tightly, while older ones sat and watched them, and I was again reminded of my greatest fear about growing old.

I don’t fear idleness in my dotage because I know how to use a smartphone, and sadly, that’s all one needs to keep busy, however unfulfilling.

I don’t fear loneliness because I plan to unleash an extraordinary combination of charm and guilt to ensure that my children and future grandchildren call me often.

My greatest fear is that I won’t be touched enough when I am in my sunset years.

Is there any more powerful, universal language of love and comfort than being touched? It’s the greatest, easiest equalizer.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” refers to touch as “the first language we learn.” He asserts that momentary physical contact, done often, constitutes “our richest means of emotional expression.”

“Is there any more powerful, universal language of love and comfort than being touched?”

At any age, humans need physical contact. For infants, the neurological impact of being touched is crucial and well-documented: Lack of touch can result in infant death. Touch is that important.

What comes to mind when we think about senior citizens? Perhaps a bespectacled grandparent in a rocking chair or an old woman using a walker. Seldom do we think older people are frequent recipients of long hugs.

That’s not to say that all senior citizens are devoid of physical contact. There are some who receive touches and hugs from spouses, grandchildren and caretakers.

Ask my mother and father about the greatest blessing of their lives, and they’ll talk about their children and grandchildren. But while their children — my sister and I — give them rushed kisses on the cheek every now and then when they enter or leave our homes, our children run excitedly toward their grandparents and envelope them in the kind of touch and cuddles that bring them to life. I’ve never seen my mother and father as alive as when they’re hugging their grandchildren.

When it comes to seeing the most basic physical needs that would uplift senior citizens, we can be oblivious.

Sometimes, when I’m in the presence of someone much older, especially during Shabbat or at a Jewish-related event, I put my hand on theirs and ask them to give me a small blessing in any language. Even if they’re secular and haven’t uttered a blessing in seven decades, the result is always the same: They’re bewildered that anyone would think they could give a blessing. But it is precisely their wisdom, resilience and, yes, a certain loneliness that is common in old age that renders them precious purveyors of blessings upon younger generations. I ask them to put their hands on my head because the combination of a blessing and touch is extraordinary.

I often worry about the future. Will I become isolated and irrelevant? Will I have more birds than friends? (I love birds.) Mostly, I want to know that when I grow old, I’ll still have opportunities to bask in holding hands and giving hugs.

“You’re radiant,” I said recently to an older, distant relative as she visited our home and held our toddler on her lap.

“He’s the first person I’ve hugged in months,” she replied. “At my age, I’ve lost almost everyone.”

I shouldn’t even take for granted that I would live to an old age but if I do, all things considered, physical contact would be welcomed with open arms.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.