Touch is the only one of our five senses that doesn’t lose its potency with age. As we grow old, our sense of smell becomes less acute; our sense of taste becomes less discriminating; our acuity of hearing diminishes; our eyesight needs enhancement, but touch does not change.
In fact, our need to touch and be touched becomes greater. We find glasses which help us to sharpen our sense of sight; we get fitted with hearing aids, in an attempt to restore our pleasure in listening to music, and to understand what others are saying to us. But we don’t need any external aids to get joy from our sense of touch. It doesn’t diminish.
There are small things that tell us this. We like to have our hair washed and combed; we like to have pedicures; we like to stroke each other and to be stroked, even in small ways. I find myself patting my friend’s hand; deciding to use a cane rather than a walker. If I use a walker, I don’t need anyone else’s help; I am more independent than if I relied on someone to lean on with one hand, while I lean on my cane with the other. I like the touch of my friend’s hand. Ah, and massage! Oh, the joys of a good massage! I recommend having a massage at least once a week, and also, if possible, learning how to give a good massage.
We are born with the need to be touched. If we are not cuddled as babies or children, we do not develop as well. Mammals, also, need to be touched and cuddled as pups. There are many experiments with chimpanzees, orangutans, Bonobos, as well as other monkeys, rats, cats and dogs, which demonstrate dramatically the difference between touched and cuddled as babies and those who are not.
All animals have a profound sense of touch. Sponges, tapeworms, insect-eating plants live mainly by touch. A woodpecker uses its tongue to find insects; penguins must touch to survive — the babies stand on their parents’ feet and press close to their warm bellies. Watch a house cat rub and wrap itself around its owner’s leg. Observe a dog squirming with pleasure when it gets its stomach scratched, or its ears stroked.
Diane Ackerman, in her provocative book “A Natural History of the Senses,” says, “Touch is a sense with unique functions and qualities … Touch affects the whole organism.” She quotes Saul Schanberg, “It’s ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damn near everything we do. No other sense can arouse you like touch.” Schanberg stated, “If touch didn’t feel good, there’d be no species, parenthood or survival. A mother wouldn’t touch her baby unless the mother felt pleasure doing it. If we didn’t like the feeling of touching and patting one another, we wouldn’t have had sex … We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it.” In the absence of touching and being touched, people of all ages can sicken and grow touch-starved.
I’ve seen bumper stickers that ask, “Did you hug your child today?” I’d like to see a bumper sticker which reminds us to hug each other more than we would do a tree. Trees don’t respond the way people do. At 93 plus, I have a caregiver who comes every day to help me bathe and dress. We make it a point to hug each other; I massage her back, and she massages mine. She also massages my feet, hips and legs, and I feel exhilarated by her touch.
Have you ever noticed the way baseball players touch each other? They pat each other on the back, stroke and hug each other; they grab each other’s butts as they trot onto the field. Football players go into a huddle, their bodies touching, and then they slap each other’s hands as they leave the huddle and run onto the field. A coach will pat his players’ heads.Tennis players shake hands and hug each other.
Our sense of self is related to our sense of touch; with how we feel. We stroke our forearms; we run our fingers through our hair to relieve stress. And as we age, we need more assurance that we are loved. If the restrictions of our culture frown on touching, holding hands, hugging and kissing, we have to ignore them. We have to learn to give each other joy through touch, the most important of our senses.
Rhoda P. Curtis is the author of ‘Rhoda: Her First Ninety Years,’ a candid memoir of a first-generation American woman who was willing to change the direction of her life every twelve years, and ‘After Ninety: What.’ Read her blog on Red Room.