The healing power of hugs

We know hugs can make us feel good, but could they be good for our health? A new study has found a hug a day might just help keep the doctor away.

For many of us a hug can make us feel loved and comforted, but new research suggests those warm embraces may also help prevent us from getting stressed and make us feel supported and socially connected.

Margaret Ryan, Head of Dementia Services at Bupa says physical contact can also help improve our mental health and wellbeing as we age.

The recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says the social support we get from physical contact like hugs may act as a protector from stress.

Researchers found that hugging helped people to feel connected and supported, and helped them resolve conflict and tension. They also found that the more support a person has and the more hugs they receive, the more they are protected from stress - and possibly from stress-related infections.
 
Ryan says social support, including hugs, may also help prevent depression and help improve the quality of life for people living with dementia.
 
“Depression can be a real problem for older people and it can be reversible, so through being part of a community and forming relationships, some of that depression can lift for some people and it might also improve their health,” says Ryan. “We shouldn’t forget that hugs and touch are just part of our needs as human beings.”
 
Ryan says being open to giving a resident a hug, where appropriate, is a part of Bupa Aged Care’s ‘person first’ approach.
Grandmother being hugged by grandchildren
“If there is an opportunity, and if it is in keeping with who that person is, we certainly encourage our team members to give residents a hug or a kiss,” says Ryan. “And often residents will do it spontaneously with the team members as well.”

“We just have to be really careful in getting to know the person so we understand what is acceptable to that person because it could be that we might actually trigger a response in someone that we weren’t expecting.” says Ryan.
 
While employees may see a simple hug or kiss on the cheek as a normal part of their interaction with some residents, Ryan says it does provide ‘meaningful moments’ for those living in aged care.
 
“For most of our employees, I think it’s pretty natural for them to give a hug, they wouldn’t necessarily think about it as a therapeutic approach – but it is,” says Ryan. “It’s not something that is planned it’s something spontaneous and we shouldn’t underestimate that.”
 
Ryan says the need for physical contact is particularly important for older residents living in the community, who may not have regular contact with others. 
 
“It’s really important we try to get to know our elderly neighbours, and offer support in any way we can.”
 
“It might be as simple as saying hello, talking over the garden fence, seeing if you can help with anything around the house,” says Ryan. “Some small gestures can be a huge source of support to older people.”

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