According to National Hospice and Palliative Care literature, the primary goal of hospice is to help individuals who are coping with diseases considered to be terminal or incurable to live as fully and comfortably as possible, in familiar surroundings, and in the company of family and friends.
I have found relating to the dying through touch to be a profound experience, both personally and professionally.
My hospice massage work helps the family step into their grief process knowing a trusted supporter is on hand for their loved one. It has given me a chance to know amazing people I would otherwise never have met, and allowed me to share in some of the most precious and sacred moments of their lives.
Most importantly, it has given my patients a tranquility that they deserve, right when they need it most.
Massage therapy can be a nurturing part of the dying experience, for reasons including these:
1. Dying is a part of living.
Every person in hospice has spent the last few months—possibly longer—fighting for their life with modern medical interventions. The battle is taxing. The treatments, as amazing as they can be, are often a source of additional stress on the body.
When a person enters hospice care, he agrees that the focus of medical care will be comfort and quality of life, not curative care. Hospice massage is a natural treatment for this plan of care that has been proven to help the patient be at peace.
2. Touch is a universal language of the heart.
There comes a point when massage as we know it is no longer called for. As a person nears death, he or she is often in a fragile, vulnerable state.
Attentive touch, or doing what is called for in the moment to ease any form of discomfort, is the best approach and can greatly enhance the quality of life in the patient.
This means that one minute you might be offering a gentle foot massage or massaging the scalp, and the next you may be moistening lips. There can be no structured plan or goal.
Hospice massage is about doing the humble work of each moment as it unfolds. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can offer is holding a hand or the feet while you focus your attention on the inner wholeness of the one you are touching.
Attentive touch is often responded to by releasing tears, or by talking about things the patient has been unable to discuss with family members.
This is all playing a role in reducing stress and anxiety and allowing our patient to relax in whichever manner they need, an opportunity that otherwise is never presented.
3. A healing presence helps.
As hospice massage therapists, we are called upon to bring forth something that comes from deep within: our ability to simply be present.
We must couple our education and skills with the simplicity of human compassion and our capacity to offer compassion to another. Our best resources when serving the dying person come from within our own hearts.
We become the space-holder, allowing the dying person their own process and experience. We serve as an anchor for family members and other caregivers.
This undivided attention is met with a transformative response of trust and calm by the patient.
4. A hospice massage therapist is an advocate for the patient, offering an elevated level of care.
They are the voice for a patient who does not have one. They work with the nurse or social worker to know and understand the patient.
This added support can play a pivotal role in the patient and the family. They are trained to understand the body and focus on natural relaxation.
Massage therapists who volunteer for or contract with a hospice organization should possess a liability insurance policy that protects them in case of patient accident or injury.
5. Hospice massage helps stabilize the patient.
Physical benefits from positive touch include lower blood pressure; stabilized heart rate; stimulated release of endorphins; a feeling of being cared for; and eased depression, anxiety and fear.
About the Author
Elizabeth Munson Erbrecht, LMT, has worked with hospice clients and patients for 15 years. She has held multiple positions, including volunteer, volunteer coordinator, massage therapist and spiritual care coordinator. She has built and implemented massage therapy programs at three different hospices. She is a National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved continuing education provider, teaching hospice massage. This article complements the feature article Erbrecht wrote for MASSAGE Magazine’s March 2018 issue, “Hospice Care: Massage Provides Comfort on the Journey.”
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