Guest Columns

Hugs promote well-being in a retirement community

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Karen Brannen
Karen Brannen

At Jefferson's Ferry, a nonprofit lifecare retirement community on Long Island, NY, we've devoted ourselves to “Embraceable You” — a program exploring the power of touch. Research has shown that human touch provides a sense of social support and well being, both physical and emotional. I've now seen firsthand that no matter how old we get, most of us love to have our hands held or be on the receiving end of a hug. 

Embraceable You

I've been at Jefferson's Ferry since 2000 when construction of this first-ever continuing care community on Long Island got underway. I realize how isolated older people sometimes feel, especially when they have faced the loss of a spouse or don't receive regular visits from family. I wondered if given more opportunities to be touched and hugged, would they feel happier and better about themselves? With the support of our Board of Directors, I decided to test this theory.

We created a study across generational lines, involving not only about 200 independent residents, but the staff as well. Participation was voluntary. Designed and implemented in 2013 by Corporate Performance Consultants of Hauppauge, NY, under the guidance of CEO Ellen Cooperperson, the study would test whether those who participated in a systematic program of increased touching, would experience greater “well-being”— such as “interest in doing things” and “feeling energetic.” 

To begin, participants filled out anonymous surveys that provided data about their living experiences, satisfaction with quality of life at Jefferson's Ferry, and evaluation of their health. The frequency of their current casual touching was assessed in terms of “low contact” or “high contact.”

Staff was brought into the process, with 48 employees (volunteer Ambassadors) trained in the types of tactile communication permitted: “A-frame” hug, the “side-by-side hug,” the “shug” (a modified shoulder hug/handshake) or the fist or elbow bump. Residents were to be provided with “Hug Me Maybe?” buttons to indicate their willingness to participate.

Hug Me Maybe

During dinner one evening, I announced the program, while a member of our staff, Gina, crooned the old Gershwin tune, “Embraceable You.”  After her opening verse, Gina tossed aside the classic song in favor of a flashy, upbeat adaptation of the pop hit by Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe.”  The dining room was suddenly flooded with staff members singing “Hug Me Maybe,” as Gina led a flash mob of dancers around tables of happily surprised residents, many of them smiling, clapping to the contagious beat, putting on their “Hug Me Maybe” buttons—some even jumping up to join the dancers. 

Over the next five days, residents were given a token for every hug received, and the tokens later drawn for prizes. As the week went on, people felt increasingly comfortable.  We gave out cameras to residents to take pictures of each other hugging…a kind of “hug paparazzi.” By the end of the week, we had accumulated some 1,400 hugs.

Results from a second follow-up questionnaire — the study was not intended to be a formal clinical trial — showed some significant differences between the percentages of low-contact (one or two instances a day) and high-contact (three or more instances a day) residents who reported positive indications of well being, including new energy and enthusiasm. Remarkably, the percentage jumped from 86% to 97% among those “not feeling depression.”  It was apparent that the anecdotal evidence supported the idea that higher touch leads to a greater sense of well being among our seniors.

Holiday Hugs

As 2013 drew to a close, we held a ‘refresher' flash mob in mid-December, introducing Embraceable You to new Jefferson's Ferry residents, and with all residents enjoying the singing, dancing, and hugs of staff.  Leaving the meeting hall, residents also found Holiday Hugs booths where personnel offered embraces, laughter, and candy canes.  The booths remained open through Christmas, proving perfect antidotes to seasonal blues.

Looking Ahead

In 2014, Jefferson's Ferry is taking what has been learned from Embraceable You and incorporating elements into other areas. For example, changing the way we bathe residents in Skilled Nursing to become a nurturing spa experience, with oversized fluffy bath towels and robes that come right out of a warm dryer.  And we've built an awareness of tactile communication into Jefferson's Ferry orientation program; so all new employees immediately understand its importance to our community. 

And, with Valentine's Day just around the corner, anything is possible. I invite you to witness our original Embraceable You flash mob at and our Facebook page.

Karen Brannen is President and CEO of Jefferson's Ferry, an all-inclusive Lifecare Retirement Community in South Setauket, New York, sponsored by Mather Health System


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