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Their Main Squeeze : Jo Lindberg Believes the Bearhugs She Gives Are Healing the Hearts of the Elderly

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jo Lindberg ambles as she walks down the hospital corridor, because bears amble. She is a 6-foot light brown furry bear, whom none of the elderly patients of the Senior Mental Health Program of the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital can escape.

Approached from behind, one surprised woman sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a floral hat blurts, “My God, what are you!?”

“I’m Cuddles, the Huggy Bear,” Lindberg answers in a chipper, slightly cartoon-like voice. “We’re celebrating hug day today. Would you like a little hug, Mildred?”

The woman’s face brightens, and she gets a furry hug.

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On to a patient in bed, who exclaims, “Oh, Cuddles, I’ve been hearing about you.”

“Have you had your hug today?” asks the bear.

“No.”

“Well I brought you a big old bear hug. Would you like it?”

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A big old bear hug ensues.

“I love this. I love it,” the woman weeps. “You’ve got a wonderful hug.”

The bear replies, “Well I’m the ambassador of hugs. I’ll tell you, it’s a rough job hugging you humans, but someone’s got to do it.”

*

“I’m roasting in here!” Lindberg said from inside her bear outfit. Once out of it, she’s seven inches shorter, and her Hugs for Health tank-top and bike shorts were drenched in sweat. Even wearing an ice-laden “cool vest,” she can take only an hour in-costume before risking heat exhaustion.

The 33-year-old created Cuddles the Huggy Bear as a singing hug-gram deliverer in 1983. She describes herself as an entrepreneurial spirit who as a kid had gone door-to-door hawking greeting cards. At 22 she was looking to go into business for herself.

“I had taken workshops, and every motivational speaker said, ‘If you can find something that you love to do and do well, you can be successful at it.’ And I love to hug. During one of these workshops at a coffee break, I was talking to someone and said, ‘I wish I could do something with hugs,’ and jokingly she said, ‘You can deliver them.’

“Three months later I was in business doing that. I was an avid reader of People magazine and would imagine myself in their Up and Coming section as the Billion-Dollar Bear,” Lindberg recalled.

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It hasn’t worked out that way. Two years into her business, a client got her to visit a care facility, “and that was it. I was touched by a woman who I hugged who broke down and sobbed in my arms because she said it had been so very long since anyone had given her a hug. I was hooked. Within five months I was visiting 20 facilities a week,” she said.

Eventually Lindberg found she was visiting hospitals and convalescent homes to the neglect of her business, and she nearly went bankrupt. For a time she took graveyard-shift jobs so she could afford to continue her visits. Since 1989, her Orange-based Hugs for Health Foundation has had nonprofit status, enabling her to seek grants and donations.

Visiting facilities in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the self-described hug therapist gives some 3,000 hugs a month. She’s worn out three sets of hand-pads on her 5-year-old bear costume, which, after some 180,000 hugs, is looking a tad mangy overall despite regular cleanings with upholstery cleaner.

It’s her third costume, a professionally made, $2,000 one with a head shell made of soft foam, unlike the un-cuddly hard plastic heads of some bear mascots, she points out. She has photos of an earlier Cuddles costume she’d made herself, which she correctly describes as looking more like an owl than a bear. She explained, “I had no idea how to make a pattern, so I laid down on paper and traced my shape.”

In addition to her visits as Cuddles, Lindberg leads volunteer Hug Patrols, visiting care facilities to hug residents en masse. To spread her creed that hugs “nurture the human spirit promoting a more positive outlook thus enhancing the quality of one’s life,” she also leads hug therapy workshops, publishes the Embrace America newsletter, has a Hug Booth at the Orange County Fair every year (where she once gave 600 hugs in a day) and holds community Hug-Ins.

The next Hug-In is March 18 at the Park Superior Care Center in Newport Beach, where she hopes to break the previous Hugs for Health record of 145 volunteer huggers. For that, and its other activities, the Hugs for Health Foundation can be reached at (714) 832-HUGS.

Lindberg can cite university studies and research papers on the benefits of touch for patients but mainly relies on her very hands-on experience. Watching her visit the elderly inpatients and outpatients at the Fountain Valley facility, the brightening effect she had on them was apparent. Of the thousands she has visited, she says, there have been only a few resistant to her hugs.

Most of the Fountain Valley patients suffer from depression, says Glinda Muirhead, senior mental health program marketing director. “With many there have been losses in their lives: their independence, their health, their loved ones. They’ve lost their homes and have to live in convalescent hospitals and board-and-cares. Some, their families have died and they have nobody. It can be devastating.”

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In addition to her visits there, the hospital sponsors Lindberg’s visits to 12 neighboring care facilities.

“They were already doing that when I came here,” Muirhead said, “and I thought, well, I’ll have to see about this before I decide I want to spend money on it. But just going to the first facility with her, the very first patient we saw, it was amazing to see the response she gets out of people who don’t respond to anything.”

Lindberg says she never gives a hug she doesn’t mean. “If you don’t hug with sincerity, the person you’re with will pick that up, and you’re doing yourself and that person a disservice, I think. If there isn’t feeling behind it, I’d just as soon not be hugged than just have someone going through the motions, getting the sense that I’m putting them out.”

She gets a lot of emotion back. She once found an elderly patient crying because she was late and he feared she wasn’t coming. One woman in her 80s was upset because she had severe arthritis and couldn’t return Lindberg’s affection.

“She said, ‘Well, you come in here every week, Cuddles, and give me a hug and I can’t hug you back,’ and she started telling me how useless she was. It made me feel so bad. So I said, ‘Frances, I have a special hug for you, the cheek-to-cheek hug. I also call it the Kodak Moment hug, because you press your cheeks together.’ Frances was so delighted that she taught her whole family that hug to share with her. It empowered her, gave her something that she could give back instead of being passive in the exchange,” Lindberg said.

People respond readily to Cuddles, “because teddy bears and hugs are a childhood memory, a very non-threatening thing. I think a lot of times as we get older, it’s very scary. It’s a very frightening and isolating being in a facility. Many have no family or they’re in other parts of the country. And to have this great big warm creature give them a hug they can kind of melt into, they feel very safe. When I put my arms around them, it’s a universal language.

“Being small, when a big guy gives me a hug, I feel safe and secure, and I think maybe I give the same thing when I’m in the costume. And I think because I’m a female bear, people are more receptive, though sometimes I get these little old ladies saying, ‘Bring me a man!’

“At one facility, there was this lady who was very deaf, and she wanted to know if I was a boy bear or a girl bear. I was yelling in this poor woman’s ear, ‘I’m a girl bear!’ but she couldn’t hear me. She finally patted my chest and said, ‘Well, it’s a boy!’ The staff there never let me forget that,” Lindberg said with a laugh.

Along with her support from Fountain Valley Regional, she is helped by corporate and individual donors and also sells a hugs-relating line of products such as mugs and buttons to fund her activities. She says when she adds up all the time she spends on her project, she’s earning less than minimum wage. Economic realities have forced her to stop visiting some facilities that offer no support.

“They’re businesses, and I realize they’re there to make a profit. I appreciate that, but not at the expense of my kind heart. I would love to be able to go in and make a difference, but if they’re not going to put a little effort into it, I’ll do it someplace else. We’re not state-funded or federally funded. We’re just a little grass-roots operation trying to make things happen,” she said.

She finds it hard getting funding in these times of cutbacks.

“In trying to get a grant funded, repeatedly I am told, ‘You’re doing a nice job, but this is really not a necessity.’ And I beg to differ because I walk into these facilities and see these lonely isolated people, and I see what a difference this makes. In the big scheme of things where we have people starving, and drug babies and homeless, I can see that this is not on the top of the priority list, but I really believe that no one should have to be so alone, especially those who have spent a lifetime giving.”

Along with her hugs, Lindberg gives out Hug Prescription forms, which list a daily Rx of “four hugs for survival, eight for maintenance and 12 for growth.” It’s an idea she borrowed from a psychologist, and a clever one when it comes to getting people to ask for affection in a society that is not overly comfortable with it.

The forms also describe the four rules of “proper hug etiquette": 1. Always respect another person’s space. 2. Ask permission when sharing a hug. 3. A hug is a non-sexual form of affection. Hug accordingly. 4. A hug is a warm embrace, not a back-breaker.

As a hug-gram bear she did occasionally have to deal with callers mistaking her service. “I’d have people asking if the bear will remove her fur, and, no, we don’t do that,” she said.

She’s had one facility manager decline her services out of fear she might spread disease, while another feared her hugs might result in charges of sexual harassment. Lindberg, meanwhile, fears we may be becoming so uptight we’re strangling ourselves emotionally.

She said, “I did a child’s birthday party with my singing telegram business, and there was an 8-year-old little boy, and as I was going around hugging everybody, I went to hug him and he said, ‘Don’t touch me!’ That caught me off guard because the rest of us were playing. He said, ‘My parents told me not to let anybody touch me.’ It just broke my heart. Here I am playing with these children, we’re all hugging and having fun and he stood off all by himself. What are you going to do?”

Sometimes she encounters such people 80 years on in their lives, still reluctant to hug. While most seniors greet her with open arms, there are some she’s worked on for years just to be able to shake their hands, or, as she call it, hand hug. There is one woman at a Newport facility, she says, who has rejected her for two years--"what she usually says is ‘Get the hell out of here,’ ” Lindberg says--but who pesters Lindberg to make sure she hugs a bedridden friend.

Surprisingly, hugs weren’t much a part of Lindberg’s upbringing.

“I wasn’t raised in an overly demonstrative family,” she said. “I was 19 before I really learned the value of hugging, and that was through a woman in an escrow office where I was working. She had gone on one of those self-help workshop weekends and when she came back she announced we were all going to start every day off with a hug. At first I thought it was kind of goofy. But after a couple of weeks, I looked forward to our being the hug squad in the office. It was wonderful there, until the president of the company embezzled money and the company went down the tubes.”

Well, no hugs for him!

As much as she loves her self-created work now, she says it isn’t always easy.

“Sometimes I have to let myself cry, because it’s very sad sometimes. I’ve established relationships with so many patients over the last 10 years, and when I go to visit and they’re no longer here, I have to have a little quiet time within myself.

“I’m not an overly religious person, but I’m very spiritual. And I really believe that what I do is the reason why I’m on the planet. That’s why God put me here. Every time I start to think I should have a real job and all the bennies that go with that, the phone starts ringing or a situation occurs and it’s like I’m being told, this is where you need to be and this is what it’s all about. And the more I believe in that, the more good things happen.”

Where does she get her seemingly boundless compassion?

“I’m very fortunate. I was born with a birth defect,” she said. Lindberg lacks the usual complement of fingers. “I think because of that I have a little more empathy. Growing up, you know how mean kids can be, and they used to call me Fingers, and I absolutely hated that, but my mother empowered me very well. I went running home from school crying, ‘How come I have to be weird! How come God made me like this?’ And she said, ‘God made you special. You’re unique.’

“So I started thinking in a positive way. And having had these difficulties, I think, opened a spot in my heart. It made me understand that we are more than our physical situation. When I see people who are ill or have lost a limb or have a disfiguring disease, I get beyond that. If they’re hooked up to a bunch of machines, I get as close as possible to give them a big hug. There’s ways around all those tubes.”

Lindberg is getting a sufficiency of hugs in her own life, she says, having finally found a gentleman who doesn’t feel threatened by her devotion to her calling. She has dreams of expanding Hugs for Health into a nationwide network.

She said, “I think it’s important as a human being to not just be a taker, to contribute something to life. I may not be the Billion-Dollar Bear, but it’s far more rewarding seeing all those smiles.”


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