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A retirement community embraces hugs

Patty Lecausi, recreational therapist at Jefferson's Ferry in

Patty Lecausi, recreational therapist at Jefferson's Ferry in South Setauket, embraces resident Ida Fiore, 91, left, at a Valentine’s Day event on Feb. 11, 2014. Credit: Heather Walsh

It was only a few days before Valentine's Day, so lots of people were looking forward to hugs. But the folks at the Jefferson's Ferry retirement community in South Setauket were taking hugging to a whole new level.

While a staff member played "All You Need Is Love" and other Beatles songs on a piano and cocktails were served from a portable bar, other employees took turns in a "hugging booth," giving friendly squeezes in a program Jefferson's Ferry officials call "Embraceable You." Aides and administrators alike offered open arms to residents.

Taking it all in were Ed and Carol Benkov, married for 55 years, who endorsed the hugfest. "It's fantastic," said Carol Benkov, 83, a retired senior aide for the Town of Brookhaven.

"I don't know if it makes sense, but it's a lot of fun," said Ed Benkov, 86, a retired supervisor at Halm Industries in Glen Head, who lived in Port Jefferson Station with his wife before moving with her to Jefferson's Ferry.

To Jefferson's Ferry management, occasional hugs make a lot of sense. Hugs, or simple shoulder pats (or fist-bumps for the less demonstrative), can have a beneficial impact on residents' quality of life, said Karen Brannen, the retirement community's president and chief executive.

"Residents who might have been more timid about engaging in the community before 'Embraceable You' seem to be more involved, smile more often and join in more freely," Brannen said. "They gather around the piano in the lobby in the evenings. I see residents singing and dancing to the oldies, who wouldn't have felt comfortable being there before."

Resident Barbara Strongin, 78, who moved to Jefferson's Ferry from Smithtown, said, "To me, it was just incredibly warm on both sides, on the staff who work here and the residents." Strongin, the former CEO of Planned Parenthood of Suffolk County, added, "It's a nice thing. A lot of people don't have family. The community has made a culture of its own. It's a friendly and welcoming place, and now it includes the younger generation [the staff]. The community has enlarged."


The research behind it

During the kickoff of the weeklong Valentine hugging event this year, resident Ruth Jahier, who moved to Jefferson's Ferry from Mattituck, said she had seen a TV report on CBS News days earlier about a California business that offers two hours of hugging and snuggling for $120. "When all this came about -- hugging -- I thought, 'What a stupid thing,' " recalled Jahier, who declined to give her age. "But there's a lot of science behind it."

The science includes formal studies showing the benefits of hugging and touch. Pro basketball teams, for example, played better when there were lots of high-five exchanges and "bro hugs" early in the season, according to a 2010 study in the journal Emotion.

"There's a lot of research to back up the benefits of hugs," said Teresa Grella-Hillebrand, director of the Marriage & Family Therapy Clinic at Hofstra University. "It's sort of common knowledge that when you physically touch someone, or hug them, it's a stress reliever. The heart rate slows down. We release oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. Those are all really positive changes physically, and they shift our mood, because once we shift those hormones, we feel better." A sustained hug -- 10 seconds or longer -- "is very calming," she said. "It's like meditation, in a way."

Jefferson's Ferry is a "continuing care retirement community," a formal designation in New York since 1989. It includes 248 independent living units, 60 assisted living beds and 60 skilled nursing beds. Depending on the living quarters selected (a 550-square-foot studio to a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment) residents pay an upfront, 90 percent refundable entrance fee, from $183,600 to $802,200 and a monthly fee, from $2,967 to $6,297 single occupancy, with a second-person fee of $1,583.

Brannen started the "Embraceable You" program there in January 2013, and the hugging booths come back for major holidays. To document its effect, Jefferson's hired a consulting firm, Corporate Performance Consultants of Hauppauge. About 200 residents filled out anonymous surveys assessing their health, living experiences and their own hugging habits -- "low contact," referring to the less touchy-feely, or "high contact," those who are naturally more inclined to hug and touch. Four dozen staff members were trained in appropriate kinds of hugging and touching and "Hug Me Maybe?" buttons were made available to residents who were open to embrace.


Noticeable results

A month after the program began, the consultant again surveyed residents to see whether all the contact had made a difference. They found that residents who took advantage of the opportunity for more friendly touch reported sleeping well, feeling energetic and able to concentrate well, being "more interested in doing things," and "not depressed or hopeless."

"We think it's a very nice concept, and it seems to do a lot of good for people," said resident Bob Spann, 88, a former research engineer for Sperry Corp. (now part of the information technology company Unisys), who moved to Jefferson's Ferry from Port Washington.

Brannen spread word about the program in an article for LeadingAge magazine, a publication for the nonprofit senior community industry. The article noted some caveats: Some residents didn't like the idea of hugging during flu season. Some found the program "contrived" and questioned whether random hugs amounted to meaningful interaction.

She also raised the possibility that some people who liked to hug were simply upbeat individuals, more likely to be engaged in activity and less likely to feel depressed. Still, she wrote, the survey seemed to show the "Embraceable You" program had the desired effect.

Brannen said she's eager to circulate the hugging program among other senior communities on Long Island. Research and training materials are available to similar facilities, she said. "We have everything documented, and we're happy to share it with anyone." More information about the program is available on Jefferson's website,

The idea for the program came to Brannen when her daughter, Megan Brannen, 28, was recovering from a serious illness. "I was thinking on my way to work one day that I really needed to hug my daughter more," she said. The thought soon followed that more hugging and touch would be good for the residents of Jefferson's Ferry and other similar communities.

"I think a lot of congregational living places could benefit from warmer relationships," Brannen said.

Faith Littlefield, 75, a resident who previously lived in Setauket and taught French and Spanish in the West Islip School District, said many in her generation tend to be reserved. "We're all older people, and we sometimes forget that we can show that type of caring without it being harmful in any way, and how good it can make you feel," she said. "I think that a lot of people got into it and were surprised at how well it worked out."

Hofstra's Grella-Hillebrand noted that seniors can be a hug-deprived age group, especially if the children and spouses they hugged all their lives are no longer nearby.

That's a point not lost on Chuck Darling, 83, a retired flight test engineer for Northrop Grumman Corp. who has lived at Jefferson's with his wife, Nancy, 79, since the couple moved from Belle Terre. "A lot of us here have lost . . . spouses or loved ones," he said. "We're well taken care of, but you don't get much physical contact, and a hug means a lot to people who've lost their loved ones. In all age groups, a hug is an expression of love, and you can use it anytime. It doesn't cost you anything."

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