by Nick Lakoff, CMT
Growing old is not always easy especially after the age of retirement. As many of the baby boomers head into their twilight years they will meet with very specific challenges that can impact their quality of life. The first is financial since they most likely won’t or cannot work any longer. If they were prudent and wise over their lifetime they have a retirement nest egg to supplement Medicare and Social Security benefits. If not, situations like having to choose between eating and medications can be extremely stressful and substantially shorten their life expectancy. Another phenomenon that occurs as the years go on is the loss of friends and family around them. This deprives them of companionship and friendships and leaves them more and more isolated. A common trend today is to farm out our elderly to retirement homes and keep them out of sight and out of mind. The greatest result of this is the sharp reduction in physical human contact that an individual gets as they near the end of their lives. This unfortunate situation is one where massage could play an important role in the future in keeping our seniors healthier, sharper and connected with the world around them.
There aren’t many study’s on massage and the health benefits to the elderly but those that have been conducted tend to show that massage helps the elderly with the effects of depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, cardio vascular issues and many others. Getting regular physical contact aside from the general health benefits of massage can dramatically improve the quality of their remaining years and their will to live.
Massaging the elderly requires a therapist with a very specific skill set. The first is they have to be good listeners as the elderly, often deprived of companionship, will often overcompensate and talk as if it was their last opportunity to do so (and sometimes it is). The second skill that is required is a great amount of patience and understanding. Seniors generally move slower and more cautiously; the older they are, the more pronounced this is. They often don’t hear as well as we do and require a therapist to be very clear and demonstrative in what they want them to do during the session. Another skill for a therapist to have is the ability to have great empathy but not confuse it with sympathy. Situations where transference and counter-transference occur are much more common when working with this clientele. People who were manipulative in their younger years and didn’t change over time often are even more so when growing old. A therapist may grow extremely attached to this clientele and can be emotionally affected should their client pass on. One last quality I feel is essential working with the elderly is being gentle when working on them. They don’t react well to being rushed or manhandled and can be quite fearful especially if it’s the first time they have a massage in their lifetime.
There are many considerations when having a session with seniors. I have found over the years that the older they were the more reserved and shy about nudity they were. Even though every attempt by me to give them as much privacy as possible (such as leaving the room whilst they changed) I would often see clients keep their slacks or skirts or even bras in the women’s case, under the massage table sheets. Sometimes it’s not about shyness but about getting cold during the massage. As a rule of thumb I would always raise the temperature in the room since older people tend to get a chill much easier than the rest of us. I also had a blanket made of solar fleece to put on top of them and slippers made of the same material to keep their feet warm. Regardless of the case, I would always respect their wishes unless it really affected my ability to perform the massage such as when the bra was not removed. In this circumstance I would find a way for them to understand that it was for their comfort (as the bra constricts the torso), to avoid staining the bra and for me to have better access to the back and perform the massage.
Another consideration is the force with which you massage their weathered bodies. They are more sensitive to pressure and have a longer recovery time so I generally use a third to half of the strength and depth that I would with a younger client. Sometimes even limiting the sessions to a half hour at least until you see how they react in the hours and days to come is a good idea. Lastly they can be very dizzy and disoriented at the end of the session and may require assistance getting up from the table and getting dressed. Having their caretaker there to assist is ideal or the therapist can do it themselves if the client is comfortable with that. If you are considering massage therapy for a senior in your family, I hope that this will have given you an idea of what is involved and how to choose your therapist wisely for this specific situation.
Nick Lakoff is a certified practitioner in the following disciplines: Swedish Massage, Sports Massage, Reflexology, Acupressure, Myo-Fascial Release, Massage for Pregnancy, Swedish Chair Massage, Hot Stone Massage and Reiki.