I seem to regularly stumble upon articles that suggest children deprived of touch suffer developmental delays. Usually this comes up in the context of evaluating orphanages in far away lands, though I’m not entirely convinced that America does a much better job.
One study states:
The unfortunate reality of overcrowded orphanages provides indirect support for the negative impact of touch deprivation. Recently, researchers observed the development of infants raised in orphanages where the ratio of care providers to infants was low (9). While infants were appropriately fed, most often they were left alone in their cribs with minimal or no physical contact with the care providers. These children suffered from severe delays in physical growth and neurobehavioral development, and elevated rates of serious infections. Although these case studies suggest a link between tactile deprivation and developmental delays, findings should be interpreted with caution as several other factors may have had an impact on development. [(9) Albers, Lisa H. Johnson, Dana E., and Hostetter, Margaret K. “Health of Children Adopted from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: Comparison with Preadoptive Medical Records.” Journal of the Medical Association 278.11 (1997): 922-924.]
It makes sense that “tactile deprivation” is linked to developmental. We were made in the image of God, and God is intrinsically relational. As the three-in-one, He has built in relationship.
Then, in the garden, Eve was made as an answer to the lack of relationship Adam had with the other created beings. We were made for relationship with God and other people. So when that is withheld, our young cannot thrive.
But what about the old? I don’t know if studies have been done, but we all know older couples who have died within minutes, days, or weeks of each other. We’ve heard the stories of older folks who couldn’t bounce back after the death of a loved one. I wonder if part of their failure to thrive is tactile deprivation, too.
Think about the sweet older couples we adore – the ones who walk hand in hand as they shuffle along the boardwalk, or sit close enough to touch in the booth at the restaurant. We are moved by photos of ancient couples cuddled together in a hospital bed.
When one of them dies, the power and comfort of touch is gone, too.
I recently hugged a couple of widows on my way into church – it’s not something I usually think to do, but this time I did. One of them commented that “a hug never goes amiss – it always feels good to be touchable.”
That comment still echoes in my heart.
Do our widows and widowers feel like “untouchables”? In a society that fails to value the wisdom that comes with age and marginalizes the elderly, do they feel like lepers? Are they another class of orphans? At animal shelters it’s the puppies that get adopted – the older dogs get passed over. Do we do this to the aging in our midst?
I think tactile deprivation is a serious issue for the young and the old. I want to make sure I am hugging my own kids a lot.
I also want to touch the least touched.
I want to be deliberate to touch the women in my circles who don’t have access to physical touch.
I want to make sure I make eye contact and give my full attention to those who are nearing the finish line.
I want to remember that “a hug never goes amiss – it always feels good to be touchable.”