“Grandma I miss your hugs! When can I give you a kiss?” This is the kind of heart-wrenching question that many of us have heard thanks to the isolation imposed by Covid-19. The ugly truth is that although social distancing is hard for all of us, it’s even more devastating for senior citizens. As for others in the most vulnerable group, it has now become a question of either risking your health or sacrificing your loving relationships. While protecting them from the disease, we deprive them of the human warmth. No touch, no hugs, no kisses.
With Christmas and Hanukah just around the corner, and Covid-19 surging to catastrophic proportions, we have been advised to skip the holiday gatherings altogether or just to celebrate it within our “Covid bubble”, that is, only among the family members that live together.
Looking towards Christmas, sadly, making chocolate chip cookies with grandma is just not happening these days. And neither is grandpa reading a bedtime story to his grandkiddies. Covid-19 has weakened ties with extended relatives, especially grandparents.
People need the human touch. This is not an unnecessary luxury for humans, it is a basic need for mental health. Psychologists call it ‘skin hunger’, also known as ‘touch hunger’. We may be suffering from its effects without even knowing it. “It’s possible to be touch hungry…and even mistake your symptoms for poor mental health. People who are touch hungry usually present as being depressed individuals.”
These days, after months of social distancing and ongoing Covid restrictions, it has become apparent that, along with isolation, it’s one of the most devastating effects of the pandemic. Huda Akil, neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, investigates the neurobiology of emotions, pain, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Her conclusion is that the human touch is so fundamental that its absence may cause the brain to rewire itself and cause psychological problems.
“Satisfying your skin hunger requires you to have meaningful physical contact with another person, and failing to observe your need for human touch can have profound emotional, even physical, consequences.”
We yearn to feel a hug, get a kiss. Of course, skin hunger is not affecting only children and senior citizens. Even a handshake is sorely missed nowadays and according to some, it may become permanently a relic of the pre-Covid-19 past. That’s more serious than may appear at first glance since scientists tell us that even a hug can reduce our levels of stress hormone, cortisol.
Covid-19 is forcing us to deal not only with the pangs of isolation and touch deprivation, but with other unprecedented challenges in the nuclear family as well: parents deal with repeated school closures, home schooling and financial instability. All these affect mental health.
But while all age groups are dealing with specific challenges, grandma and grandpa are in a group by themselves. As parents—at least statistically– you have many decades ahead of you to make new memories with your children, but sad as it is to state the obvious, grandparents are on a reverse countdown. Their remaining time is limited and the isolation imposed by Covid-19 is robbing them of these precious moments. Until vaccines make it possible to get back to normal life, and resuming human touch, making memories will be on hold.
What’s worse is that the bonds that we had formed with our grandchildren, no matter how strong they were before Covid-19, are now shriveling like a plant deprived of sunlight and nourishment. As one grandmother put it, “I don’t want them to lose that feeling of wanting to be with me and wanting to spend time with me.” In short, grandparents are facing separation anxiety.
Of course, we don’t want to exaggerate. It’s not as if the relationship will totally die. There are an estimated 70 million grandparents in the country. Not all of them live close enough to their grandchildren to have enjoyed regular proximity and intimacy with them. Those who live at some distance don’t normally have the opportunity to enjoy the physical closeness in any case. And perhaps for those who only got to see their grandchildren a few times a year and hug them and kiss them, things will not be that different from the idyllic pre-Covid-19 times. But that isn’t true for the rest that did have the joy of physical proximity and who are now suffering from skin hunger and separation anxiety.
Sure, technology helps. FaceTime, texts and phone calls can go some way towards maintaining the intimacy, but psychology tells us that there is no substitute for the “small moments” and for human touch.
As we enter the holiday season, tough decisions will have to be made in families: do we want to sit around the Christmas table with our loved ones and risk Covid-19, or will we keep our distance and stay safe? Is it better for grandma and grandpa to be with family but at risk, or home alone but safe?