In 1989 I began to offer massage to patients of Hospice of Boulder County in Colorado. I had been practicing massage for a few years and had some experience working with elderly clients, but my experience in working with hospice really changed my life, personally and professionally.
Bringing Massage Home
I remember going to the home of my first client, as most hospice patients are being cared for in their own homes. A pleasant, elderly gentleman greeted me at the front door, then took me into the bedroom, where his wife, Marnie*, lay in bed. She seemed apprehensive as I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. I was nervous, but eager to share massage with her.
I took her hand in mine and began to use the technique that seemed most appropriate to me—that of the broad, encompassing pressure I knew from my training in shiatsu. She was lying in bed, in her nightgown, so it seemed it wouldn’t be easy to use lotion or the gliding strokes of Swedish massage.
My intuition was right. Marnie loved my touch, and I proceeded to use this same quality of contact to address her shoulder, arm and hand on the side I could reach. Then I asked if I could sit on the bed and do the arm on her other side. After that, I used the same approach to work on her lower legs and feet. For this, I could sit on a chair at the foot of the bed.
She almost seemed surprised that it felt so good. I was relieved that I could do something that helped her feel more relaxed and peaceful. I did not have any special training for this—just the desire to bring the benefits of touch to a woman in the last weeks of her life. When I left, I told her husband I would be back the next week.
The Birth of Comfort Touch
Marnie was my first hospice patient, the first of many to come over the years. In 1991, Hospice of Boulder County asked me to share what I was doing with their other volunteer massage therapists, because it seemed so helpful as a way to calm and comfort the patients. I began to teach massage therapists, medical staff and family caregivers what has come to be known as Comfort Touch®.
Comfort Touch is a nurturing style of acupressure that pays special attention to the physical and emotional needs of elderly or ill clients. Designed to bring the benefits of touch to a broad range of people, its primary intention is to provide comfort through techniques that promote deep relaxation and relief from pain. It is safe, appropriate and effective for those for whom conventional massage might cause discomfort or even injury.
The techniques of Comfort Touch follow six guiding principles, which can be summarized within the acronym SCRIBE. Simply stated, the Comfort Touch practitioner learns to: Slow down to connect with the client, maintaining a clear intention to offer comfort, with an attitude that is respectful of the person being touched. Direct pressure is applied into the center of the body part being touched, with broad, encompassing contact.
Though research has not been conducted on Comfort Touch as a modality, research into similar forms of touch has supported its potential for effecting positive change. For example, in a 2001 study published in Geriatric Nursing, 45 elderly females in a long-term care facility were given sessions of a similar technique, which the researchers termed comfort touch, as opposed to clinical or procedural touch. The subjects showed significant improvement in their perceptions of self-esteem, well-being, social processes, health status, life satisfaction, self-actualization, faith or belief, and self-responsibility.
While there is an apparent simplicity to this work, practitioners will discover deeper layers of intricacy as they respond to the individual needs of each client.
Benefits for Clients and Therapists
Comfort Touch is now practiced in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, hospices and elder communities. It is practiced by massage therapists, as well as nurses and other health care professionals. As a technique it is very versatile: It can be performed with clients who are in wheelchairs, hospital beds, regular beds, recliners or chairs. Because Comfort Touch does not require the use of oil or lotion, it is possible to work with clients who are fully clothed. Pillows and towels can be used to help position clients comfortably. Sessions generally last 30 to 50 minutes.
Emphasis is also placed on physical and emotional self-care for the practitioner. The use of proper body mechanics and patterning ensures the safety of the practitioner; it is also essential to the quality of touch, and the effectiveness of this therapy for the client.
I’ll never forget the client who said to me after her session, “You made me feel like the most important person in the world!” Yes, it feels good to know you can make a difference in someone’s life. The enjoyment is mutual—for both the giver and receiver of Comfort Touch.
(Editor’s note: For more information on hospice care, see this report from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization; hospice organizations consistently seek volunteer massage therapists.)
*Name has been changed
Mary Kathleen Rose, L.M.T., is internationally known for her work in the development of touch as a complementary therapy in medical settings. She is the author of the textbook Comfort Touch®—Massage for the Elderly and the Ill (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010) and a DVD of the same title. Visit comforttouch.com to learn more.