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Massage and Aging: How safe touch can profoundly help the elderly

Eva Ford Ashland Massage Therapist

by Eva Ford, LMT

What if you could help your elderly parent ease the effects of dementia? Have better balance and motor control? What if old age did not have to mean the constant presence of severe joint pain? What if I told you multiple studies continue to support the beneficial effects of massage in all of the above?

This research-round-up from the American Massage Therapy Association takes a look at current studies and research dealing with massage and aging populations:

Regularly receiving massage has been shown to promote relaxation and stability while helping temper the effects of dementia, high-blood pressure and osteoarthritis. By incorporating massage into a regular healthcare regimen, many older adults find a better quality of life and additional relief from a multitude of health issues.

(Sources here)

Yesterday, I had a sweet discussion with a friend about the importance of working with older people. She (a local esthetician) and I agreed: working with the elderly is incredibly rewarding for both client and practitioner. And it’s so important—not only for the physical health reasons outlined in the aforementioned article, but for the emotional impact of touch. Because we live in a culture which stigmatizes and isolates age and illness, a significant number of the elderly suffer from touch deprivation. Massage can bridge that gap. Working with the aging elders in our communities strengthens compassion and connects us to the past.

"Working with the elderly is incredibly rewarding for both client and practitioner."

The website quotes Dr. Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine, as saying that many elderly patients are deprived of touch, having lost spouses, and “a lot of illnesses of the elderly may relate to their being touch deprived.” While a professional massage might not be practical or economically possible for many elderly persons or their guardians, safe, platonic touch is important for mental, emotional, and physical well-being. This article on the power of touch in elder caregiving lists a few important tips and guidelines for bringing respectful, well-done touch into your interactions with an ageing relative or friend.

If you do wish to arrange a massage for an older person you care for, call and chat with the massage therapist to ask about their experience and facilities. Bring up any pertinent health issues such as mobility, recent surgeries, a history of falls, emotional or mental state. For example, can the client handle stairs? Does s/he need to have a caretaker in the room during the massage? Has there been a recent hip replacement, or does s/he suffer from dementia? Equally important is asking the potential client for his or her input.

"...empower an elderly person..."

Working with a professional massage therapist can really empower an elderly person who requires caretaking. As someone whose sole interest is the relaxation of the client, the therapist will check in about his/her comfort level and boundaries, which can be a relief for someone constantly—and by necessity—cared for by doctors and caretakers with specific (and not always comfortable) care plans and agendas. Notice the use of “client” as opposed to “patient.”

I recall working with a woman (we’ll call her Joan) brought to my clinic by her very attentive and competent caretaker in a wheelchair. Joan, who suffers from a motor-control condition, insisted she could handle the stairs, and, after being firmly told to wait while her helper stowed the wheelchair, proceeded to climb—rather quickly—with the aid of the railing. She later expressed to me how proud she was that she could still climb stairs and had relished the opportunity to show off a little. Joan seemed profoundly relaxed after a light touch massage and cheerfully accepted help going back down the stairs after the session. I’m not at all taking issue with the caretaker’s attitude; she was simply doing her job. To me, this incident illustrates the benefit Joan received from an hour of concentrated consideration and therapeutic touch. Emotionally, she appeared to accept help more readily, and her motor skills were visibly improved.

"... people who find themselves having an elderly experience."

As a therapist, I find a sweetness in working with people who find themselves having an elderly experience. They have a need—such a basic, simple need we all share: that of safe, healthy human contact. Witnessing this and having the opportunity to provide compassionate care is incredibly heart-opening.

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