This week I had the good fortune of sharing coffee with a cherished friend and mentor. We got to talking about some of the challenges often associated with aging, but in particular, we discussed the difficulty in finding a way to live a life of meaning and purpose as we grow older.
As I have reflected on this since then, I keep coming back to a time in my training, when I worked with infants who were diagnosed with a condition called, “Failure to Thrive”. In brief, this describes a child who is not eating sufficiently and whose weight is below what is required to develop normally. Often there is a low level of activity and movement as well. What struck me back then was how often this is associated with a lack of tactile or sensory stimulation – or more bluntly, human touch and attention. Unfortunately, this is often seen in infants who live in poorly run orphanages, but can occur in any instance where there is a lack of connection between the baby and someone who cares about their well being.
What I have come to know through my work with older adults, is that there are some naturally occurring changes which happen as we age that put us at risk for a similar ‘failure to thrive’ state. Some of the typical ways in which our world shrinks have to do with vision or hearing loss, decreased ability to move about safely, social isolation associated with friends and family who are dying or moving away. But the one I believe is often most devastating is the lack of human touch and the connection that inherently comes with that.
When we touch someone we have the opportunity to communicate that we care without saying a word. Think about a hand placed in the small of your back as you cross the road, a greeting that involves a hug, or a light touch of any kind. The message is one that says, “I see you” or “You matter”. And how often have you received vital information about another person’s mood or state of mind based on how they responded to your touch? I have a great friend who has the best hug associated with his “Hello!”. You know he really means it when he says he’s glad to see you!
Researchers consistently describe the vital role touch plays in people’s mental and physical health. It can reassure, relax and comfort. It can decrease depression, anxiety, stress and pain. Humans need to touch and be touched, just as we require the nourishment of food and water. And our need for touch does not diminish over time and as we age. I have realized that it will be important for me to be more intentional, and perhaps more creative, around ways in which to stay ‘in touch’ with my fellow humans if I hope to continue to live a life of purpose and meaning.