ATLANTA — Just days away from Valentine’s Day, thousands of senior citizens in Atlanta are feeling the love. A group of "surprise huggers" is on the road to connect with people 65 and up who are increasingly isolated across Georgia.

11Alive's Kaitlyn Ross tagged along with them Monday as they hugged people at the Sterling Estates Retirement Community.

They said as their friends stop driving, or move away, they become more and more lonely - they miss having that caring touch.

Mary Ellen Layden is a pro at this.

"Oh I'm a great hugger. I love to hug," she said. 

She moved to the Sterling Estates Retirement Community last year, when she turned 80.

"As I personally have gotten older, I live alone, I don't have that constant contact with people," she said. 

According to the Pew Research Group, more than a quarter of Americans 65 and older live alone. That population is expected to increase more than 65 percent by 2030. Georgia has the 11th fastest growing population of 60+ people in the U.S.

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"I have found friends my age no longer drive at night, they don't want to drive on the freeways, so slowly you lose those people," she said.

Visiting Angels started the hugging campaign the week of Valentine’s Day to ease some of that loneliness and isolation.

"Just letting people know that you care. In this world, everyone is busy, and just taking that time to engage with someone for a brief second can change someone's day," said Matthew Onofrey, a community care giver for Visiting Angels. 

"I think it's one of the most meaningful things you can do for another living person, another human being. Just caring about them in that way. And not enough people do it," he said. 

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"When someone touches you and hugs you, and especially when you go in and you actually hold it for a certain amount of time, it is relaxing," said Teresa Janiga, Visiting Angels Director. 

They're visiting retirement communities, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals across the state all week.

Layden got them ready on their first day.

"One of my great challenges is when I see a new person, deciding whether or not they're open to hugging. Because my first impulse is to hug someone," said Layden.

They say best tip for hugging ahead of Valentine’s Day? Hold for 10 seconds.


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