Juggling Act: Are hugs for loved ones still off limits amid pandemic?

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

The words were spelled out with black pen and an exclamation point on my mom’s calendar at her cottage in northern Michigan: “Touch Day!”

After weeks of self-isolating alone during Michigan’s shutdown, my mom, now in her late 70s, finally spent some time with a few of her grandkids this month Up North. My 5-year-old nephew, so excited to not just see Grandma but give her a hug, dubbed the first day of their visit, “Touch Day!”

Research has shown that touch conveys a range of emotions.

I’m not sure if hugs are allowed for loved ones amid COVID 19 – I don’t think the handshake will return for years – but when it’s close family, some people are taking that risk. Emotional health is linked with physical health and we need connection beyond Zoom calls.

After my sister’s and her family’s visit, we also saw my mom this month. And after weeks of socially distanced walks and meals, together but apart, I gave her a hug. I think we both needed it.

The need for hugs and the power of touch has taken on new significance during the pandemic. The New York Times had an entire story  earlier this month about how to hug loved ones, stay safe and the associated risks for passing along the virus. Among its suggestions: don’t hug cheek-to-cheek or forehead to forehead. Hugging while facing opposite directions is best.

It’s also safe for children to hug grandparents around the waist. Masks are still recommended for hugs as is hand-washing afterward.

A Brazilian nursing home, meanwhile, created a “hug tunnel” for residents to get some very need connection with loved ones. Large sheets of plastic with arm holes separated seniors from family members.

“We noticed that our senior residents were feeling sad,” Luciana Brito, one of the facility’s owners, told CNN. “We thought they would be much happier if we found a way for them to hug their relatives.”

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California who has written about the power of touch. He said research has shown that touch communicates 12 different emotions, such as gratitude, sympathy and love. He also calls touch the language of compassion. No wonder why we all feel emotionally adrift during this crazy time.

One reader for Warren told me about a visit with her son and his wife, who live in Washington D.C. but came to visit her and her husband in late May. They socially-distanced through most of their time together but at the very end she broke the rules and gave her son a hug. She had to. “What if I never saw him again?” she told me.

Hugs – or any kind of physical touch – will continue to carry risks until there’s a coronavirus vaccine. But it can be done safely. And the truth is we all just need a hug sometimes.