The Need for Compassionate Touch
by Ann Catlin
The need for compassionate care of our elders is growing. In the United States, people 85 years and older make up the fastest growing segment of our population. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, by 2030 there will be 71.5 million adults over age 65 in the United States. Many elders are affected by debilitating illness or injury and require the assistance of a care setting to help manage their everyday lives.
Long term care and hospice settings now acknowledge the value of massage in improving the quality of life of people living with the effects of aging, disease or disability. The use of massage therapy by adults over age 65 has tripled since 1997 according to a 2006 consumer survey by AMTA.
Touch is essential to being human and the need for touch may actually increase in old age or when faced with a life limiting illness. However, in our society, these individuals are often deprived of the kind of touch that is essential to quality of life. In his book, Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu states “The use of touch and physical closeness may be the most important way to communicate with ill and aged persons that they are still important as human beings.”
Massage and focused touch that is offered with mindful presence promotes relaxation and reduces stress, as well as offers comfort and reassurance easing physical, emotional and spiritual pain or suffering. Touch can be the link to healing in its truest form, a sense of wholeness.
Compassionate Touch® is a therapeutic modality created specifically for our elders and the ill or dying person. It is an approach that combines one-on-one focused attention, intentional touch and sensitive massage with specialized communication skills to help enhance quality of life for this special population. The approach of Compassionate Touch® is unique in that it is more than a set of techniques. Therapists are empowered to affirm his/ her ability to be a healing presence to others—touch and massage are the medium for relating to the individual served. Compassionate Touch® places special emphasis on working with elders with dementia and how touch and massage can support the dying person.
Massage therapists have a unique opportunity to reclaim the power of the human touch in caregiving. Working with elders in facility care requires unique qualities and skills including knowledge of age related changes, modified massage techniques, adaptability and an openness to be face to face with very real and, at times, a very raw human condition. A hallmark of this form of work is that therapists must be open to the personal process of loss and grief as clients decline in function or make their transition. Developing self care rituals and connecting with others who do similar work are helpful in coping with this aspect of serving this population. In the words of Irene Smith, author of Emotional Impact of Working with the Dying: “We cannot heal others. We can only heal ourselves so that our presence is healing to others.”
Massage therapists who feel drawn to work with this population have a unique opportunity not only to be of service to individuals, but also to help change the culture of how we, as a society, care for our elders. There are many specific benefits of touch and massage for the person dealing with the effects of aging or life-limiting illness, including:
* Eases pain
* Increases circulation
* Improves skin condition
* Decreases muscle tension
* Decreases postural discomfort from hours spent in a wheelchair
* Provides tactile stimulation
* Induces a relaxation response
* Improves sleep quality
* Decreases anxiety
* Increases mental alertness
* Lifts the mood
* Acknowledges self worth
* Decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation
* Provides social interaction
Linda Flack is a nurse and a massage therapist living in Ackley, Iowa and she provides massage to patients of Hospice of North Iowa (Mason City). She quickly learned that massage training did not fully prepare her for working with someone who is dying. Linda has many stories of how massage has been a powerful way of caring.
* “I saw an elderly man who was hesitant at first to receive a massage. He was so frail and fearful. I began by providing gentle attentive touch and with ongoing visits; he wanted to move to his hospital bed and would close his eyes, quietly relaxing. His family also found the quiet peace very healing.”
* “When my own father was dying of bone cancer, he initially rejected massage. But when I used Compassionate Touch® techniques, he found it relaxing and comforting. He started asking me to give him “that gentle touch massage. I saw a gentle smile when he barely had the strength to speak.”
The use of caring and compassionate touch gives you the opportunity to contribute to another human being in a way that is both simple… and profound. And you, too, will experience rewards—an increased belief that you can make a real difference, a deeper sense of meaning in your work as a massage therapist and the realization that, in the process of reaching out, you, too have been touched.
About the Author
Ann Catlin, LMT, OTR has 30 years experience with elders in facility care, persons with disabilities and the dying as an occupational and massage therapist. She is the owner/ director of the Center for Compassionate Touch LLC, an organization that provides Compassionate Touch® training across the nation. Compassionate Touch® is a complementary approach combining one-on-one focused attention, intentional touch and sensitive massage with specialized communication skills to help enhance quality of life of those in later life stages. She is the author of numerous articles in professional publications, online courses and is the creator of an instructional DVD: Sensitive Massage: Reclaiming the Human Touch in Caregiving Ann’s vision is a world where a healing presence in the form of touch is commonplace and every elder, ill and dying person has access to the benefits of Compassionate Touch®. She may be reached at www.compassionate-touch.org