Geriatric Massage

Person seated in wheelchair receives shoulder massage from professional
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Aging can be a complicated and difficult process, even when specific health issues aren’t present. In addition to managing life changes, aging adults must adjust to the fact the body simply doesn’t function as it did in their younger years. Massage can help alleviate not only the physical challenges of aging, but also some of the related mental health burdens.

Geriatric massage isn’t necessarily considered its own modality, but some bodywork professionals specialize in services for older populations or cater especially to older individuals. These practitioners might conduct home massages for people who are housebound, visit nursing homes or Hospice houses, or work as part of a comprehensive caregiving team for someone with a particular health issue.

Benefits of Massage for Geriatrics

As we age, we can expect many changes to occur. The spinal column shortens and the vertebrae become more compact, which can cause back pain, especially in the lower back. Older people lose bone mass, and bones may become brittle or weak while joints stiffen with less lubrication. For some, this can result in arthritis, osteoporosis, or significant pain and mobility issues.

The majority of massage clients are middle-aged adults and seniors, which has provided ample opportunity for researchers to study the effects of massage and touch therapy on issues that aging adults commonly face. Overall, massage therapy consistently alleviates pain and muscle tension, eases stress, and promotes mobility and range of motion. It is also effective for specific medical conditions, as evidenced by numerous studies.

  • People with dementia experience greater comfort and less pain after massage treatments.
  • Slow-stroke back massage improves sleep in individuals with dementia in nursing homes.
  • People with Parkinson’s have lower stress hormone levels and higher dopamine levels, which is especially significant given Parkinson’s frequently decreases dopamine.
  • Seniors who receive bodywork tend to experience a decrease in physical limitations and overall general improvements in emotional well-being.

Massage therapy also has numerous mental health benefits, as it has been shown to release chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that correlate with positive feelings and happiness. These effects can help ease loneliness, depression, grief, and more psychological side effects of the aging process. Perhaps above all, touch therapy is a type of communication that conveys to aging individuals that they are still valued and cared for.

Types of Bodywork for Older Individuals

Depending on a person’s physical and mental state, bodywork for the elderly might be a traditional table massage, a seated head massage, or a light hand massage. Because it stimulates tissue that loses tone and elasticity, myofascial release can be an appropriate treatment for older people. Some individuals might be comfortable with more touch than others, and some might prefer a type of alternative therapy.

Many alternative modalities have the added benefit of incorporating the brain, strengthening the body-mind connection and promoting holistic care.

  • ROM dance, a gentle type of movement based on those recommended for people with rheumatoid arthritis, is designed to increase range of motion and can be used even by people in wheelchairs.
  • Music therapy has the power to access deep-seated emotions and memories, which can be beneficial for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. A bodywork practitioner might try incorporating some form of music therapy into touch therapy.
  • Used in conjunction with massage or other touch therapy, aromatherapy can help address seniors’ emotional needs, especially those related to feelings of loss or isolation.
  • Ice massage can assist with rehabilitation after injury.

Precautions Against Geriatric Massage

Age in itself is never a barrier to massage, nor does it necessitate an overly tentative or gentle massage. In fact, some evidence shows older individuals have a higher tolerance for touch and pressure. There are, however, some age-related considerations that can help make bodywork more comfortable for geriatrics.

A therapist might use pillows and cushions to help support a client’s low back and hips, especially if there is pain in those areas or any part of the back. Older individuals may have more trouble breathing, or other respiratory conditions, that make it difficult to lie face-down on a massage table. Massage can often be performed while the client lies on their side, if this position is more comfortable.

Disability or age should not restrict someone from seeking massage therapy, especially considering the number of modalities that support the health and well-being of seniors and the number of related health issues that can be addressed or reversed with bodywork. If you or a loved one are experiencing effects of aging, consider seeking a bodywork professional to help ease this process and reduce pain throughout it. Talk with your medical doctor first if you or your loved one have health issues such as heart conditions, osteoporosis, or dementia.

References:

  1. Allison, N. (1999). The illustrated encyclopedia of body-mind disciplines, 158-159. New York City, NY: Rosen Publishing Group.
  2. Gloth, M. J. (2004). The role of rehabilitation in managing pain in seniors. Handbook of Pain Relief in Older Adults (pp. 73-86). Humana Press. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-59259-668-3_5#page-1
  3. Hernandez-Reif, M., et. al. (2002). Parkinson’s disease symptoms are differentially affected by massage therapy vs. progressive muscle relaxation: a pilot study. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 6(3), 177-182. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1360859202902822
  4. Mackenzie, E. R., & Rakel, B. (2006). Complementary and alternative medicine for older adults: A guide to holistic approaches to healthy aging, 135. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
  5. Martin, R., Williams, J., Hadjistavropoulos, T., Hadjistavropoulos, H. D., & MacLean, M. (2005). A qualitative investigation of seniors’ and caregivers’ views on pain assessment and management. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research, 37(2), 142-165. Retrieved from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/mcgill/cjnr/2005/00000037/00000002/art00013
  6. Munk, N., & Zanjani, F. (2011). Relationship between massage therapy usage and health outcomes in older adults. Journal of bodywork and movement therapies, 15(2), 177-185. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1360859210000082
  7. Preyde, M. (2000). Effectiveness of massage therapy for subacute low-back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 162(13), 1815-1820. Retrieved from http://www.cmaj.ca/content/162/13/1815.short
  8. Premkumar, K. (2012). Anatomy and physiology: The massage connection (3rd ed.), 57, 131, 270, 354. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
    1. Steefel, L. (1996). Massage therapy as an adjunct healing modality in Parkinson’s disease. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 2(6), 377-382. Retrieved from http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/act.1996.2.377