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Hands-On Care for Those in Later-Life Stages

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR

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What Do Your Clients Teach You?

Each person we touch becomes a teacher. If we listen with our ears, eyes and heart, they teach us how to best serve their needs and, in turn, our own. In my work with seniors, I've had many such teachers and one in particular stands out.

I met Ruth fifteen years ago when I was working at a retirement community where I developed a wellness program. Ruth attended a presentation I gave about the benefits of massage for older adults. She won the door prize for a thirty minute massage and immediately scheduled a session. That was the start of a rewarding four-year relationship as Ruth received monthly massages. She also occasionally was a speaker at my workshops, giving others a chance to learn from her experience. I came upon her handwritten outline for one of these talks she called The Human Touch. I share it with you, along with my own insights.


T. Truthfulness produces trust in each other. Trust develops in the therapeutic relationship with respect, mutual understanding and empowerment of your client to be a partner in their healing and well-being.

H. Help each other feel comfortable during the massage. We do this in several ways. The ambiance of our clinic or studio; the quality of interaction before, during and after the massage, and adapting positioning on the massage table to meet our needs all help create comfort.

E. Equipment can be simple. Many seniors don't tolerate a massage table or chair because of pain or mobility issues. Equipment may consist simply of pillows, towels and a footstool.

massage therapy - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark H. Human touch is so important. In the United States, nearly half of people 75 and older live alone. Isolation, loneliness and lack of human touch are a reality for many. Ruth often told me that even though she enjoyed the physical benefits of massage that just being touched was what she looked forward to the most.

U. Understand each other. Learn the art of authentic listening. It is listening with presence that goes beyond what your ears hear and what you say in response. It is listening with your heart. It is responding from your authentic self. It is listening for the essence of the interaction and connecting heart to heart.

M. Meaning of the worth of a massage on the mind. Massage is well-known for its positive effect on mood. A compassionate human touch reminds us of our worth, fosters self-care and restores a sense of well-being.

A. Answer the client's questions with assurance. Confidently serving seniors requires specialized knowledge and skills. We must be informed about conditions associated with aging and how to safely work with each individual within our scope of practice.

N. Need for communication. Be frank with each other. Sometimes a client requests a particular modality when, in fact, it isn't in their best interest to honor the request. We need to be comfortable saying no to such requests with a clear explanation our client can understand, then work together to come up with an alternative.

T. Too long of a massage is detrimental to a person with a sensitive body. The "sensitive body" Ruth refers to, comes from her history with severe allergies and chronic pain from spinal deterioration. It's my experience that many seniors tolerate thirty minute sessions well while enjoying the benefits.

O. Be observant of the person's reaction to each massage. Expect changes in the condition of older client's over time and be ready to adjust your approach. Don't get lulled into routine.

U. Use time wisely for the best results. Take more time for the most needed part of the body. Focus the massage to address the client's specific goal. Seniors seek out our services with a particular need in mind, quite often for pain related issues. Taking a targeted approach will result in a more satisfied client.

C. A regular chair works best for my massages. Be prepared with several alternatives to a table massage. Sessions with Ruth took place in her apartment and I positioned her comfortably sitting at her dining room table supported with pillows and sitting on her sofa with her legs and feet elevated on her footstool.

H. Healing of the body. Ruth wrote an account of the physical benefit of her massage. "My neck, back, hands, legs and feet are massaged. I'm so relaxed afterward, I feel like I'm walking in heaven. It helps my entire body. I'm now free from pain in my neck and shoulders. My family and friends see how much straighter my back is."

More Lessons from Ruth

"Besides massage, in order for me to have a well-balanced life, I east plenty of fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water, walk each day, keep my mind alert by working puzzle, reading, writing letters, playing games, having a good attitude toward life and exchanging fears or worries with loving and helping others. Daily prayer is the most important for me." Not bad advice! Perhaps our elders really are meant for wise counsel.


  1. Pullen, R. (2010) Fostering therapeutic nurse-patient relationships, Nursing Made Incredibly Easy! May/June 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 3 - p 4.
  2. A Profile of Older Americans( 2011), Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services accessed at
  3. Bush, E, (2001) The Use of Human Touch to Improve the Well-Being of Older Adults. A Holistic Nursing Intervention Journal of Holistic Nursing Sept. Vol. 19 No. 3 256-270.
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