Here at the DC we all love a good hug, they make us feel safe, loved and wanted all at the same time as well as allow us to express feelings without necessarily saying anything. Usually, no matter what age you are, a hug from a friend or family member makes up for a bad day or helps if you’re feeling unwell.
There is a saying by Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”
However, there’s a couple of things that we should think about each time we go to hug someone, especially if they’re struggling with episodes of memory loss or living with dementia.
Firstly, you should always ask if you can hug them. Why? Well, not everyone likes being hugged and this can be for a variety of reasons including needing personal space or having been a victim of assault or abuse. You should never feel pressured to hug someone, it is well within your rights to simply say no and that goes doubly so for vulnerable groups of people like young children, the elderly or those with a disability.
Mind you, should you want to give someone a quick hug they can be very pleasant and the physical equivalent of a rich, smooth cup of hot coffee! Research has shown that people who receive lots of visitors in hospital tend to recover quicker than those that don’t and the simple touch of another person’s hand in yours when you’re feeling sad can be better than all of the tubs of cookie dough (n)ice cream in the world.
Believe it or not, regular hugs can relieve depression, anxiety, stress, physical pain and help you recover from illness, like colds, in record time. Why? Well, as this study published in the health section of US News shows a simple hug doesn’t just boost mood but the act itself makes the body produce more oxytocin. What’s oxytocin? It’s a naturally-occurring chemical that’s otherwise known as the ‘love hormone’.
‘When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.’ – Psychology Today
Interestingly, various journals and websites have published guidelines on how to hug someone and research suggests there are around seven ‘ rules’ to follow for a successful, mutually enjoyable hug. Bear in mind some or all of these, may apply to someone with dementia and there may be others specific to their condition and level of understanding. Firstly, check to see if a hug is welcome, look how they’ve positioned their arms, as if they’re crossed across the chest or make no move towards you it may not be welcome.
Next, consider if the hug is appropriate. Not everyone appreciates them and you don’t want them to get the wrong idea, ie that you want the hug to turn into something more. Look to imitate the ‘CT touch’ it is slow, gentle and comforting and doesn’t seek to squeeze someone until they can’t breathe properly.
If in a group scenario, at a party or saying goodbye at an emotional event look around and see how other people are hugging. Think about whether a ‘haven hug’ is what’s needed right then. These are extra special hugs that make someone feel safe, the way a child does when a caring parent hugs them. These tend to last longer and are often given by close friends and dear family members when wishing to reassure someone special.
Lastly, don’t forget that if you give hugs then you’ll probably get some back too! The thing about hugs is that even if you don’t like them other people do, so feel free to say no but it may be prudent to offer a handshake instead – you don’t want people to think that you don’t care!
Don’t forget, depending on what stage someone’s dementia is at, they may not remember who you are and very rarely does anyone appreciate a stranger invading their personal space.
A general rule of thumb would be: Always Ask. Hugs maybe, we would be Very careful about kissing someone. Even if they are a relative or spouse because the person may not remember your relationship you had with them prior to dementia, as you do.
Important to note also: If you didn’t hug/kiss that person when they didn’t have dementia then certainly Do Not try to push that once they do. Those with dementia are classed as vulnerable adults (akin to kissing or hugging someone’s child) – if they come to you for hugs or gesture a hug, that’s fine but always repeat back to them “Oh you’d like a hug?”
ALWAYS ASK FIRST.
After you have asked, we would advise going in for a hug as you would a friend, if someone then hugs you back or tries to hug, pull on you, hold your hand or kiss you, then that is initiated by the individual. Still, check for responses when asking. Some may feel the “right thing” is to say “yes” or “okay” but they may not look too thrilled with the idea. You can always say: “Shall we high five instead?” Keep it fun but always in the other person’s control. Never disregard what a person tells you. If there is no answer Or they say no: respect that.
If possible, always approach them head on otherwise they could get scared at the sudden unexpected touch. If someone cannot respond, still Ask if they want a hug, or look at their body language as a gauge to see if one would be welcome? Are they smiling, relaxed and reaching out their hands to you? They probably recognise you so a hug would be welcome, try not to be too upset if they decline or pull away when you approach- ‘off days’ are common and their mood may be nothing to do with you.
Don’t suffocate them either! People with limited mobility are well aware they can’t leave a situation so you don’t want them to panic. A good hug length is around seven to ten seconds. Why? Simple, any longer and they may start to feel trapped or that something horrible has happened but too short and they may not have realised you have hugged them. Typically, most older people do enjoy being hugged and if you follow the advice in this post and use a good dose of common sense then everyone should feel happy, cared for and supported which is really what hugging is all about.