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The absense of touch – living alone during lockdown

A hug can say what words can not” (Author unknown)

I read today that there’s an estimated 2 billion people living in lock-down at this very moment. In my country, New Zealand, its estimated that somewhere around 500,000, or approx 10% of our population live alone. Globally, that percentage goes as high as 40% in some countries. Whatever the statistics, I am one of those people.

I’ve pretty much lived alone for 15 years, save for couple of stints where I had housemates. For the past 12 months I’ve both lived alone and worked from home. I’ve gotten pretty good at this living-alone stuff. In many ways I have felt fortunate that I am in this lock-down alone rather than facing the reality of living 24/7 with other people. At least on my own, there’s only one person that can get on my nerves, and that’s me! That said, there is something that, no matter how well adjusted we may have come to living solo, that lock-down living has taken away from us: Human Touch.

Humans are social creatures. We’re designed to interact with each other and throughout many cultures touch is an integral way in which we greet and communicate with each other. The widely accepted hand-shake is one obvious example where touch forms a greeting, a congratulation, a “Hi how are you” and much more. Bedouins often greet each other by rubbing noses. Greenlander’s may place their nose and lips on your cheek or forehead and breathe in. In New Zealand, Maori will welcome wit a Hongi – the gentle touching of foreheads and noses, while in some parts of Africa it may be the squeezing of each others thumbs that say “welcome’”, and so much more.

There are also many other ways we touch others, often without even being fully aware. A light tap on a shoulder, a little nudge with an elbow, the gentle caress of a child or the soft stroking of a cheek. Our touch can express many things – happiness, attraction, sadness, compassion …

Touch is an essential part of our well-being. Through increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin, touch has been shown to help relieve stress and anxiety. Hugs or holding hands can lower heart rates and strengthen the immune system. When we are devoid of touch, it can contribute to depression and feelings of loneliness. Yet for touch to take place there is one key component needed:- Proximity. We need to be close to another in order to be able to touch them, with no barrier between. We’ve all seen the movies where a prisoner sits behind a screen and talks to their visitor via a phone set and how they desperately reach out make physical contact by placing their hands together, yet separated by the glass between them.

There was a very recent time when I would never have considered human touch as a luxury or a privilege. I do now. For people that live alone in lock-down, we are unable to hold someone’s hand, we can not put our arm around someone to give or receive comfort, and we can not give or receive a hug from the child across the road when asked for one. These are all acts that are an essential part of being human, they shape the human experience, and we know touch is imperative to our well-being.

Why am I writing this? Not for sympathy, nor to feel like a victim. No! We have been called upon to adhere to isolation for the good of our communities, for the good of our countries. I am writing this to give voice to the many who are locked-down on their own, devoid of a hug, devoid of the ability to hold someone’s hand.

And to remind those that are in lock-down with others to reach out and hug your partner, cuddle your kids, or hold your friends hand.  Because being able to is a luxury and a privilege.

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