Baby boomers — the people who brought us Woodstock, the Women’s Rights movement and the World Wide Web — are now ages 55 to 73, and they are joining our culture’s elder cohort.
As they do so, they are redefining what it means to age.
Increasingly, Americans are opting to continue living in their own houses in older age or choosing to move into retirement communities that don’t look like what we used to call an old-folks home. Whether they live independently or in community, seniors expect access to the life-enhancing activities and amenities they’re used to.
Many of these changes are driven by the simple fact that baby boomers have long explored self-development and health practices outside the mainstream.
Boomers were ages 29 to 47 in 1993 when David Eisenberg, MD’s report on the use of therapies including massage, chiropractic and megavitamins was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The report showed that $13.7 billion was spent annually by Americans on such therapies, with $10.3 billion paid for them out of pocket — and it opened a floodgate of interest, media coverage, research and increased use and acceptance of what were then called unconventional therapies (a term that has evolved by turns to alternative, complementary and integrative).
What this means for massage therapists is a potential clientele of older Americans — there are 76 million boomers alone — who understand, and can afford, the benefits of hands-on health care.
Unlike the established specialty of geriatric massage, or touch modified for people with thin skin, mobility issues and other such age-related conditions as worsened balance, diminished eyesight or dementia, massage for more active seniors looks more like massage for the general population, although specialized training is suggested.
Demand for both approaches to senior massage is expected to increase, according to experts in massage for older clients.
From Massage Chair to Wheelchair
Sheila Alexander, 64, has been a massage therapist since 1993, owns SeniorSpa senior massage-and-spa services education company and for the past 17 years a continuing education provider specializing in massage and spa therapies for seniors.
She said many massage therapists aren’t aware of the “huge” demographic of aging Americans and the opportunity they represent to build clientele.
“It’s really the baby boom generation that believes in massage … [and] definitely has more income to spend on themselves, more discretionary income,” she said.
About 10,000 people celebrate their 65th birthday every day and 10,000 people retire every day as well, even as boomers stay in the labor force “at rates not seen in generations for people their age,” according to a Pew Research Center report. An American who reaches age 65 today can expect to live, on average, to age 86 if female and age 84 if male, according to the Social Security Administration.
As boomers move through their senior years, they will be followed closely by Gen X (ages 40 to 54 now); and in a couple of decades by Millennials (ages 25 to 39 now). As lifespans increase, it means that seniority now spans four decades, from ages 55 to 95; it also spans activity levels ranging from active and employed older people, to seniors who need assistance caring for themselves partially or fully.
A tack that Alexander suggests for working with less-active seniors is finding assisted living or skilled nursing centers that receive federal funds, as they have to provide a certain number of hours of one-on-one contact for their residents who are wheelchair- or bed-bound.
“Massage therapy can fill that need for centers that are looking to fill that need,” she said. Alexander also advises massage therapists interested in working with this demographic to purchase a massage chair, for both ease of use when traveling from one site to another and for older clients’ comfort level. Chair massage can also be modified for clients who move into an armchair or, eventually, a wheelchair.
“I still have quite a few residents that I solely do chair massage on,” Alexander said. “One is 102. The chair is a viable tool for all ages. You have to help seniors get on and off it, but they don’t have to disrobe.”
Seniors who live independently are another target clientele, the one most boomers are in currently. Alexander counts herself within this demographic. She is choosing to age in place, a term defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level.”
Her Lake Norman, North Carolina, neighborhood features single-family homes on large lots, many of which are inhabited by single, older women. Alexander and her neighbors share tools, kayaks and a community garden, and they hold community parties and cookouts.
“It is exceptional,” Alexander said. “I am looking at staying in my home until I come out in an urn; that’s my goal.”
Marketing to this demographic would look much the same as marketing to the general public, using social media and word-of-mouth. Networking with physicians is another means of connecting with older clients. Marketing experts say it’s a mistake to think that once someone reaches age 50 or leaves the workforce they are no longer a viable customer.
One report, from the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, “Finding Direction In The Senior Market: Your Guide to Attracting and Retaining Senior Clients,” includes examples of marketing messages crafted for each group and may be downloaded for free at csa.us/page/guidetoseniormarket.
Alexander said one way of connecting with older, active clients can be as simple as contacting a senior center, an adult daycare center, retirement community or 55-and-over “active adult” community that offers various amenities to residents.
“They all have a community center where they do fitness classes and barbeques and dances and all kinds of activities, and their lifestyle consultant is looking for people to come in and teach yoga or do hand massage or chair massage,” she said. “They all have wellness centers where they could employ a massage therapist on-site.”
Way Beyond Bingo
Massage therapist Sharon Puszko began providing massage at Hoosier Village Retirement Community in Indianapolis, Indiana, nine years ago, after Krista Broshears was hired as the facility’s wellness director.
Broshears, herself “around 50,” had long enjoyed the benefits of massage as a client, and knew she wanted to make massage therapy available to all residents, whether in the independent living, assisted living or memory care areas of Hoosier Village.
“[Massage] caters to body/mind/spirit, and that’s a huge benefit,” Broshears said. “I’m a big fan of all types of bodywork and [massage] is the one that’s most acceptable to this age group.” At first, massage was offered at Hoosier Village once each month, but as demand increased it was offered twice a month. Residents wanted more, and now Puszko provides weekly sessions.
Puszko, 79, is also owner of Day-Break Geriatric Massage Institute and a continuing education provider specializing in massage for seniors. She said one trend she’s seeing now is for massage therapists to contract with a few senior communities, visiting each of them one or two days a week. Hoosier Village is just one of the five communities where Puszko provides massage. Another trend she’s noticing is senior communities providing dedicated rooms and tables for massage sessions.
One of the communities she works with has built two session rooms, one in the community center that is visited by more robust residents and one in the health center, where most people use walkers, she said.
Massage is one amenity desired and expected by active seniors, Puszko added. “They’re not just playing bingo anymore; they’re doing everything,” she said. “Massage, yoga, tai chi, Zumba, water aerobics, bus trips.”
When Broshears first introduced massage at Hoosier Village, she recalled, one woman in her 90’s questioned why a “massage parlor” was opening on the premises. Less than a decade later, Broshears said, residents universally understand and appreciate massage.
“They’re more familiar with it,” she said. “We’re catering more to the baby boomers, so they are more likely to have had massage before coming here.”
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. She also wrote “Massage Therapists Must ‘Seize This Moment’: A Report From the Massage Therapy Foundation International Research Conference” and “The MASSAGE Magazine Interview: Gael Wood.”