By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., Executive Director, Colony Retirement Homes
Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language, and the last, and it always tells the truth. – Margaret Atwood.
When COVID-19 first came our way, we were all full of fear – we feared the virus, getting sick, dying, and exposing those we loved. We feared we would be unable to take care of our families and that nobody would help take care of us. Many of those fears were legitimate. Our safety nets did not work as intended. Many people died alone. Essential workers had to care for others leaving their families alone to take care of themselves.
Now, we are moving into an era in which COVID-19 is part of the fabric of our lives. We have developed tools to cope – social distancing and masks have saved lives. Zoom and Facetime have helped keep us connected. Favorite tools like humor, faith, and stubbornness have seen us through tough times before and will help some people get through this, too. Two of my favorite tools, especially to deal with fear, are writing and touch. Both of these tools help me feel connected and calm. COVID-19 took away touch as a tool to help assuage our fears and the fears of those we care for.
During the height of the surge, my sons were with their father and I did not see them for several weeks. We all felt they were safer there because I was an essential worker and I did not want to risk any more exposures than necessary. Twice, I saw my sons from a safe distance. Although it sounds dramatic, it physically hurt to see my boys and not hug them.
We are gregarious creatures by nature. The need to belong is built into the very cells of our body. Good touch reduces blood pressure and heart rate and keeps us healthy; it also releases several hormones that make us feel good. Touch also makes us feel connected to the ones we love by affirming our place, our sense of belonging, to family and society.
I consider myself lucky. Not only did I get time with my boys after the surge, but I have a husband and two cats whose touch kept me physically grounded. One of my cats, Dusty, is not very trusting, so having her nearby demanding attention made me feel more connected, more complete.
I have always felt that touch was an important part of communicating with my elders. So many people recoil at the sight of people who are sick or sad, and a pat on a shoulder or holding someone’s hand can go a long way in letting someone know they are treasured. Now, I don’t dare get within 6 feet of people, and I am imagining that most family members are doing the same.
I know that social distancing is going to keep our elders safe. I fear that our elders will suffer the most from loss of touch. I hope that they are resilient enough to get through. I also hope that those who are suffering most consider fostering or adopting a pet. Neither cats nor dogs are afraid of COVID-19. And caring for a pet gives us perspective and hope in the face of fear. May we all feel as grounded as a cat in her castle.