A Promising Future Comes From Serving Special Populations

By Ann Catlin , LMT, NCTMB, OTR

A Promising Future Comes From Serving Special Populations

By Ann Catlin , LMT, NCTMB, OTR

I bring good news to those of you wishing to expand your practice to special populations! Massage is finding an accepted place in traditional settings that care for our elders, individuals with life-limiting illness or disability. Many of your peers are discovering opportunities in eldercare facilities, hospice and hospitals:

  • Helen G., LMT, in Portland, Ore., contracts with a senior retirement community that provides her with a treatment room on-site. Her practice is thriving!
  • Ellen M., LMT, in Lady Lake, Fla., is employed full-time by a hospice organization.
  • Lu R., LMT, in Hampton, Iowa, regularly provides massage to elders with Alzheimer's disease in a local care facility.

This is good news for us all. And thanks to the increased public awareness of the value of massage, the success these massage therapists are enjoying is being repeated across the country. But there are other influences at work here, too. Societal trends lend promise to this ever-growing specialized market for massage therapists.

Current Trends Support the Growth of Massage Therapy

We live in a society that loves to keep track of facts and statistics. Many of us in the massage profession don't get too excited about this kind of detail. We like to experience the world through other means, kinesthetically, for example. But my own experience and observation as a therapist and an educator prompted me to ask a key question: What are the forces driving the increased opportunities for massage therapists to serve elders and other special populations? Part of the answer to my question can be found in demographic and society changes occurring at the same time that massage therapy is being recognized as a valuable, if not essential, form of service. Call it synchronicity or just old-fashioned good timing, but the end result is that we are in a good place at the right time. Here is what I discovered about current trends.

There are increasing numbers of older adults. In 2006, there were 37.3 million people in the U.S. over age 65. By the year 2030, it is estimated there will be 71.5 million.1

People are living longer. The fastest growing segment of our population is 85 years and older. In the last century, our country has experienced enormous change in how long people live. In 1900, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47.3. Today it is 78. Advances in medicine and health care along with lifestyle changes have contributed to people living longer.2

The types of diseases have changed. In 1900, the leading cause of death among adults was infectious diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and influenza, as well as accidents. Today, adults are affected by more chronic illnesses and living for years with conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.2,3

More people are turning to complementary and alternative therapies. Individuals are using complementary and alternative therapies in growing numbers. Studies have shown that common reasons for this trend include: increased desire to participate in one's self care; concerns regarding side effects of medications; concern about health care costs; and consumer dissatisfaction with conventional medical care. One study showed that adults over 65 were most motivated to use complementary modalities for pain relief, to improve quality of life and to maintain health and fitness. The complementary and alternative therapies most commonly used by these older adults were chiropractic, herbal medicine and massage therapy. According to a 2006 consumer survey by the AMTA, the use of massage therapy among those 65 and older has tripled since 1997.4,5

There is greater public access to hospice care. Hospice is a relative newcomer to the health care system. Hospice today refers to specialized care of dying patients and can be traced back to 1967 when Dame Cicely Saunders founded the first modern hospice near London. She, along with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, introduced holistic hospice care to the U.S. and the first hospice in America, the Connecticut Hospice, was opened in 1974. Today, there are more than 4,000 hospice organizations in the U.S.6,7

Hospitals are developing palliative care programs. (To palliate means to make comfortable by alleviating symptoms from an illness.) Hospices have traditionally provided palliative care to individuals suffering from terminal illness. Now, more hospitals are turning to palliative care for patients with advanced chronic or life-threatening illness, emphasizing symptom management, communication and other means to improve quality of life for patients and their families. Larger hospitals, university medical centers and not-for-profit hospitals are where most palliative care programs are found.7,8

Hospital-based massage programs are growing in number. A 2006 national survey by the AMTA showed the number of hospitals offering massage increased more than one-third over the previous two years. Of those hospitals, 71 percent indicated that massage therapy is offered for patient stress relief and comfort; 67 percent utilized massage therapy for pain management; 52 percent provided massage for cancer patients and 37 percent offered massage for end-of-life care.9,10

The Culture Change Movement is impacting nursing home care. This is a grass-roots movement, transforming the culture of aging in America and bringing person-centered care to the nursing home industry. Spearheaded by the Pioneer Network, this movement is about fundamental change in nursing homes, creating a less institutionalized and more humane environment that supports the elder's life, dignity, rights and freedom.11,12

So, what does all this have to do with you? If you are a massage therapist who feels drawn to work with elders, the ill or those in end-of-life care, it has a great deal to do with you. As our population ages, greater numbers of older adults will be seeking ways to live well longer or to find relief from the symptoms of the conditions affecting them. If you have the knowledge, skills and sensitivity to meet their needs, there is potential for your practice to thrive. Many elders will require the assistance of a care facility due to debilitating illness or injury.

The doors are opening for massage therapists to work in long-term care facilities as evidence shows that skilled touch improves the quality of life for the individuals who reside there. Public awareness and access to hospice and palliative care will continue to expand; and massage is an effective, non-pharmacological approach for comfort care. Keep in mind that nursing homes, hospice organizations and hospitals are businesses too, and they are continually looking for innovative programs to attract customers in their changing and competitive market. Bringing a massage therapist on board does exactly that.

The good news is that the potential for you to successfully expand your practice will only increase. What's more, working with individuals in this special population gives you the opportunity to serve others in a way that is profound. It can be the most uplifting and deeply rewarding work you will ever do. Now that is really good news!


  1. Department of Health and Human Services, www.hhs.gov.
  2. National Center for Health Statistics, www.cdc.gov.
  3. Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov.
  4. Hospice and Palliative Nurse Association, www.hpna.org.
  5. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, www.jognonline.com. Accessed May 2003.
  6. Radulovic JW. Trends in Hospice and Palliative Care in the United States and Kansas. Kansas Nurse, October 2004.
  7. National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, www.nhpco.org.
  8. www.seniorjournal.com.
  9. Berland T. Hospitals Embrace Massage. Massage Therapy Journal, Winter 2004.
  10. Massage Magazine News January 2006, www.massagemag.com/News/2006/January.
  11. National Citizen's Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, www.nccnhr.org.
  12. Pioneer Network, www.pioneernetwork.net.