New research is showing that physical touch is important in nearly every relationship, from the doctor’s office to the basketball court. It is a lesson I learned my first night visiting the residents of a nursing home. I’ve tried to remember the importance of touch every time I’m with the elderly now, including grandparents and people at church.
The doctor I was with held the hand of every patient he saw. It was his weekly visit to the nursing home where many of his patients lived, and while he spoke with them, he also held their hands. The doctor told me it was a good idea to do the same.
I have to admit that with some residents it took an extra effort to reach out and hold a hand. But, people do sense that reluctance, and if it continues over time, the refusal to touch isolates people. Nursing home residents often feel isolated enough, and holding hands can be an important way to increase the interpersonal bonds that we all need to maintain.
Touch is “our richest means of emotional expression” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. According to The New York Times, researchers found that:
Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.
To test the touch theory, they looked at how often players in the NBA hug, hi-five, slap, pat or otherwise touch one another. They found that the most successful teams in a range of statistics, including wins, also had the highest touch counts. The same was true for players. “The touchiest player was Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ star big man, followed by star forwards Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors and Carlos Boozer of the Utah Jazz. ‘Within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnett has reached out and touched four guys,’ Dr. Keltner said.”
Just a few months ago was the last time I practiced this kind of intentional touching. I needed to remind myself to make an extra effort to hold the hand of an elderly woman who had cancer. A bandage covered the tumor, but there was a strong odor. She was tired and often fell asleep during conversations. Still, I held her hand for two hours as we talked or sat quietly side by side. I expected it would be–as it turned out to be–the last time I saw her.
As the research shows, touch communicates in ways that words cannot. This woman couldn’t talk because of her cancer, yet I knew she was glad I paid that last visit. I think she knows I was glad too.