Ep 16 – The 5 Love Languages + Physical Touch

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Show notes (description):

In today’s episode:

  • How social circles and physical affection decreases with age
  • How physical touch can improve the health outcomes and well-being of our grandparents and aging parents
  • What type of physical touch can we offer our older loved ones, especially when they’re declining
  • How physical touch can be used with loved ones with dementia
physical touch grandparent


An apple a day they say keeps the doctor away… could a hug do the same? According to The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, hugs can help improve sleep, our reactivity to stress, increases our physical and emotional well-being, and it can even help us fight off infections. Yes, physical touch is another unique and powerful way that we can value the older people in our lives. And that is exactly what we’ll talk about today in episode 16. 

There are small things that we can overlook that make a big difference in our grandparents/aging parents live. Now I’m not really a super huggy person, but after I researched and prepped this episode, I do believe that hugs are healthy. And not just hugs but physical touch in general… now if you’re one of those people whose mind went here when I said physical touch… I just want to set things straight at the beginning that I am not talking about kissy kissy romantic stuff. And I’m talking about appropriate physical touch, the kind that respects people and the kind that benefits them. 

So here’s the thing.. think about yourself and how much physical affection you get on average… then think about what might happen when the people closest you, move on, or yes eventually die. Like maybe your parent gives you a hug or your grandparent every time you see them. Or your siblings or best friend hug you every time you hang out and greet each other. Or maybe you have kids who snuggle you… Well fast forward 40 years… how many of them will still be around? 

If those closest to you are no longer around, how much physical affection will you be receving when you’re 70,80, 90 or beyond.

As people age, their social circles shrink. This means, as one ages, they get less physical affection. They receive less physical touch, the kinda that improve our health and wellbeing. 

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that there are probably a good number of older people who don’t see their families regularly and the only physical touch they may receive is from hired help. Maybe an aide who to help them to the bathroom or stand up. 

I remember when my family shared that my grandma’s health was declining….Her little brother, who was in his 80s drove like 5 hours to see her. He only stayed about 15 minutes and she just held his hand. Our first love language when we’re born is essentially touch. It’s the first way we understand love. 

Stanford has an article (and I’m sure u can find this in many other studies) shares how physical touch is something that babies need and something that helps them. They say it can help reduce fussiness, help improve digestion, reduce postpartum depression for moms, it can improve relaxation for these infants and moms. That’s why after giving birth, they want moms to go skin to skin with the baby. It makes them safe. It helps them bond with the mom. 

I would that the more hugs someone gets a day, the healthier they will be. When you think of the grumpy old man or woman stereotype, I’d take a guess that that person does not get many hugs in a day. 

Here’s the reality, we can’t always take away the pain that comes from someone’s situation even if we want to. Through a bear hug, a shoulder squeeze, without a word, we remind our grandparents and parents they’re not alone. That they’ve got people on their side. Sometimes, words can’t do what a hand of comfort can. 

Before I continue on..If you are enjoying this podcast, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy reading my book too. It’s called The Value of Wrinkles and you can get it at any bookstore. You can even request it the library (if you like save money). 100 people have already reviewed on Amazon and I think you’ll find it encouraging, helpful, and refreshing. So grab a copy and then send me a note on my site at isabeltom.com to let me know what you think after reading it. 

That brings to mind a really sweet moment when my dad had cancer. I think it had been a few weeks when he was diagnosed, and things were not good.  My dad needed someone to be always with him (he sat in a chair most of the day and it took him a lot of energy to move from one room to the other). Anyways, I had just had my second baby and when it was my shift or time to be with him, I left my daughter who was 3 or so with my sister because I wanted to be sure to give Dad my attention and actual help. Well, my daughter wanted to come with me so bad one day, that I let her come. And my dad was sitting in his recliner because in a normal chair it wasn’t comfortable, and his eyes were closed. He looked like he was in pain or at least distress pretty often… I mean the cancer clearly impacted his ability to even sit comfortably. Anyways, my daughter as sitting right next to him and well… I remember her staring my dad and just playing as she sat in a chair right next to him… she wasn’t afraid of my dad, but she was aware that he wasn’t feeling well and so she was leaning on the arm of the recliner looking at my dad and I remember giving her permission by saying “You can put hand on Goong Goong.” 

She placed her small palm and little fingers gently onto my dad’s hand that rested on the arm of the recliner and I wish you could have been there because my dad’s eyes opened and it was like magic because he smiled probably the first genuine smile I’d seen on his face in such a long time. It shows the impact of grandchildren… and it reminds the impact of physical touch offered as a sign of friendship… as a reminder that you are with someone. As a symbol of love. 

Two last things I need to point out. Physical touch is one of the best ways we can love an older person when they are weak and may not have energy to talk. When someone is dying, holding their hand is one of the best ways to say “hey you’re not alone” “I love you” or “I’m here.” That’s what I did when my grandpa was in her last days.. I just say there and often I’d hold her hand. But for her comfort and honestly for mine too.  

Secondly, if your loved one has dementia and it’s at the point where they cannot communicate soundly or words don’t always seem an effective way to get through to them, know that many caregivers are encouraged when they offer physical affection to their loved ones with dementia because it can be a way to connecting with them. My friend, Sarah Nord, who was on episode 9 (really really funny episode), she has a blog post on How many hugs we need each day? In that post she reminds families that giving hugs is so helpful, and she gives helpful guidelines that you need to know. For example, if you are giving hugs to someone with dementia, no surprise hugs, no forced hugs. Sometimes people with dementia however can’t verbally communicate this. So how you know they don’t want a hug? I’ll post a link to the entire article, because it’s fascinating, but some non-verbal indicators that your grandparent or parent does not want physcial touch include: 

  • Facial grimacing
  • Muscle tension or tightening (finger splay, stiffening of the neck, fisted hands)
  • Moving away from the touch by turning away or pulling away
  • Transitioning to a closed posture: crossing the arms
  • Verbal aggression: yelling, screaming
  • Becoming physically aggressive: hitting, biting, pinching


Last things that Sarah points out that you need to know is that even if the touch is necessary (i.e. assisting with a bed bath or changing a soiled pull-up), it is STILL important to make that touch predictable, expected, and safe. 

And especially you visit your grandparent or parent and you’re long distance. When you give them a hug goodbye or shower them with snuggles and kisses and embraces all weekend… they will remember.  And you can do it if you’re local too. Actually, a ritual that was not intentional growing up was that I gave my grandparents a good night kiss and hug pretty much every night until the day I moved out. That means yes, cool Bel at age 26 was still giving goodnight kisses and hugs to my grandparents. I think it was a good idea, do you?  

I hope today’s episode really gave you some perspective and insight on how you can bless an older person more. If you know someone who is caring for an older loved one… would you share this episode with them? 

Thanks friend for being here. I pray that your grandparent/parent will be blessed because you listened today. My vision is that every older person would have a village and know it. 

Alright, look out for a brand new episode next time. I’m so glad you joined me today. 

physical touch baby

Need guidance on how to love your grandparent or aging parent? 

Grab a copy of my book, The Value of Wrinkles: A Young Perspective on How Loving the Old Will Change Your Life

** Note that there are affiliate links on this page. This means I may receive a small compensation if you make a purchase. 

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