After suffering a stroke in October of 2002, Ferol Hillebrenner, 62, was paralyzed on the entire left side of her body. She spent the next three months in a rehabilitation center and eventually regained the ability to walk. But seven months after her stroke she still did not have the ability to move her left arm and hand. Her quest for a full recovery led her to explore massage as a way to regain her arm and hand movement. Not only did it gradually help her recover movement in her paralyzed limb, but she also found the overall experience "very soothing, relaxing and positive." Massage therapy provides another option for senior caregivers to help seniors relax as they journey through the aging process.
Massage therapy has been used as a simple method for attaining and maintaining good health for centuries. Back in 400 B.C., Hippocrates, known as the first physician, wrote about the benefits of massage. Even further back in ancient Egypt, tombs paintings depict people receiving massages. Yet despite its long history of use, modern medicine does not always include it as part of the treatment plan, especially when it pertains to seniors.
But as the senior population grows and people live longer, millions search for ways to cope with the issues associated with getting older such as arthritis and Alzheimer's, as well as chronic joint and muscle pain. Yet a large percentage of the population doesn't even recognize massage as a treatment option.
A new study recently released by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) shows that nearly half (49%) of all people don't know that massage therapy is used for seniors. Another 29% have heard that massage is used for seniors, but aren't aware of how it is being used or what options are available. In other words, seniors are largely missing out on the benefits of massage because most people, including many health professionals, are unaware that the option exists.
Benefits of Massage
The healing touch provided by massage can be beneficial for many conditions, but is especially useful if your loved one has limited mobility or is in a wheelchair. Lack of movement causes the circulation to diminish and nerve function to decline. As a result, muscles atrophy and shorten, resulting in tight joints that can't straighten normally. Prolonged contraction of muscles due to inactivity can be helped with massage and gentle stretching. Massage also calms the central nervous system and reduces muscle tension, which eases chronic pain and improves sleep patterns.
Other benefits of massage for seniors:
• Improves relaxation and communication
• Increases range of motion and pain management for arthritis sufferers
• Triggers natural joint lubrication through increased circulation, improving mobility
• Increases coordination, strength, flexibility and posture
• Expedites healing of wounds
• Boosts energy level and mental awareness
• Stimulates respiration
• Stimulates digestion and elimination of toxins
"Getting older doesn't mean we have to stop living highly active lives," says Neal Barry, certified massage therapist and expert in senior massage. "Because our bodies can't always keep up with our active lifestyles, massage is being used as a method to promote both physical and mental well-being. The benefits of senior massage can reach the elderly in nursing homes, as well as the active 55-year-old."
That mental well-being can often be accomplished by the simple but profound act of gentle, soothing touch. It can provide seniors with a sense of value not found through other forms of therapy or interaction with people. "Our bodies are designed to be touched", says Paul Escriva, certified massage therapist with a practice in Chicago. "Massage for seniors, especially, is about human touch. They are not touched very much and when they are touched, it is usually not nurturing touch. It is catheters and needles and not about communication."
Other practitioners find similar benefits of using massage with their patients. Dr. Santiago Toledo, Director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, finds that his patients who take advantage of massage therapy are often able to sleep better and experience less anxiety and can sometimes decrease the amount or number of medications taken.
Dr. Toledo finds massage therapy especially beneficial for his patients suffering from arthritis. "The older population usually experiences tightness in their back, hip flexors, hamstrings, and heel chords. A skilled massage therapist is able to assist a patient to relieve tension in these areas, while improving their balance, mobility and coordination," He also likes massage therapy because it can be done at any setting that is convenient - in the home or at the clinic.
Massage has also been shown to be therapeutic for specific conditions such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. A study by the Touch Research Institute showed that adults with Parkinson's disease who received massage therapy or progressive muscle relaxation twice a week for five weeks performed better in daily living activities and rated themselves as improved in daily functioning.
Among the many ways massage aids those with Alzheimer's disease, perhaps its biggest benefit is through maintaining and rebuilding the nervous system's response to stimuli to help resist physical and mental decline. In addition, those with Alzheimer's disease have great potential to respond well to massage therapy as another form of communication with those closest to them.
Massage Therapy for Caregivers
Caregivers themselves can also realize the many physical and emotional benefits of massage. Massage can be a great way to help caregivers deal with the daily demands associated with caring for their loved one. Paul Escriva advocates massage for both loved ones and their caregivers. "A caregiver may become...so focused on what is going on outside of themselves that they do not feel their own body. When stress is not relieved it can manifest as illness. But when you take care of yourself, you have more to give and this helps to prevent burnout," says Escriva. By setting aside time on a regular basis for massage therapy, a caregiver's overall health, energy and mental attitude improves while stress declines.
Seniors who have never experienced a massage before may be apprehensive about the process. If this is the case, begin with a localized type of massage such as Reflexology that focuses on the hand or foot (see Types of Massage). A senior may remain fully clothed and sit in a chair for this type of treatment. Others may feel comfortable with a full-body massage or a type of deep muscle massage to work a specific area of the body. Regardless of the method, it may take the senior several sessions to feel completely comfortable with the massage process.
Because the therapeutic benefits of senior massage are becoming better known, a growing number of massage therapists now specialize in geriatric massage therapy. In your search for the right massage therapist, it's important to find one that understands your loved one's medical condition and is sensitive to their emotional state. Whenever possible, it is preferable to seek out a massage therapist who is certified by The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB), an independent, nonprofit organization formed to set high standards of ethical and professional practice. It is also advisable for all seniors to first check with their doctor to confirm that massage will be beneficial for them. Some conditions are not appropriate for massage.
In a metropolitan area, seniors may go to a spa or a rehabilitation facility for a massage, or indulge in the luxury of having a massage therapist come to their home. The cost of massage therapy ranges from $50 to $150 per hour, depending on the type of massage and the expertise of the massage therapist. In recent years, some insurance companies have begun to add massage therapy to their list of covered medical procedures.
When you've done your research and gotten the go-ahead from your doctor, the only way to know if you or your loved one might truly benefit from massage is to try it. Those who have often see it as a lifeline for increased health, mobility, and mental well-being. Maybe you will too.
Types of Massage
Not sure what type of massage is best for you or your loved one? Start by talking with your doctor to see if he or she recommends massage in light of known health conditions. In the meantime, here's a list of the most common types of massage to help you get oriented.
• Craniosacral Massage - Craniosacral massage is a light touch manipulation of the head and bottom of the spine that helps restore optimal movement of the fluid in the spinal cord. It can be especially useful in treating headaches, eye and ear problems, jaw problems, whiplash, and back pain.
• Deep Tissue Massage - Deep tissue massage is also called deep muscle therapy or deep tissue therapy. It is often helpful for chronic aches and pains because the work focuses on the inner muscles and connective tissue.
• Reflexology - Reflexology is a form of massage based on the theory that specific points on the body are linked to vital organs. By pressing these points, it stimulates the related part of the body. Foot reflexology, in which pressure techniques are applied only to the feet, is the most common form of reflexology.
• Rolfing® - Rolfing is also called structural integration and is a form of deep muscle massage. It seeks to reestablish proper vertical alignment in the body by manipulating select tissues. The standard 10-session routine has shown proven effective for both physical and mental healing.
• Swedish Massage - Swedish massage is what most people think of "massage." It involves the manipulation of muscles and connective tissues of the body for the purpose of relaxation, rehabilitation or health maintenance.
• Trigger Point Massage - Trigger Point Therapy, also known as Myotherapy or Neuromuscular Therapy, applies concentrated finger pressure to "trigger points" (painful irritated areas of muscles) to break cycles of spasm and pain.
Massage Therapy Resources:
American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)
820 Davis Street, Suite 100
Evanston, IL 60201-4444
The AMTA offers an online search feature to find a massage therapist in your area as well as recent research on massage therapy.
National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork
8201 Greensboro Drive, Suite 300
McLean, VA 22102
(703) 610-9015 (800) 296-0664
To locate a nationally certified massage therapist or bodywork practitioner in your area, call or visit the NCBTMB Web site.
Recommended Books on Massage Therapy and Alternative Medicine:
The Arthritis Foundation's Guide to Alternative Therapies by Judith Hortman
Complementary Therapies in the Care of Older People by Helen Brett
Stress Relief & Relaxation Techniques by Judith Lazarus
Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies by Anne Woodham and Dr. David Peters