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Massage Offers Respite for Primary Caregivers
Massage reduces physical and emotional stress, and reduces pain and insomnia among primary caregivers for terminally ill family members, according to a study, "Massage as a respite intervention for primary caregivers."

The study was administered by The Oregon Hospice Association and East-West College of the Healing Arts, and funded by a community outreach grant from the American Massage Therapy Association Foundation in 1998. The grant initiated a massage respite project that provided massage as an intervention for primary caregivers, who often experience fatigue and stress.

Massage was offered to a group of 13 caregivers between the ages of 35 and 82, who had been referred by a volunteer coordinator or social worker. Most participants were women, usually wives, caring for men. They received 75-minute sessions of Swedish massage and other techniques, including shiatsu, Reiki, polarity, jostling, compression, myofascial release, trigger-point therapy and gentle stretching, weekly or biweekly at a hospice or at their home. Half of the participants had never had massage before. On the intake form, caregivers primarily asked to have their necks, shoulders or backs massaged. The average number of massages received was six (the caregivers were often too busy to take time for massage).

Assessments included a pre- and post-massage list of questions that rated emotional stress, physical stress, physical pain and sleep difficulty on a 1-5 scale. Physical stress measurements included things such as stamina and energy level, while physical pain referred to specifics such as headaches, back pain and knotted muscles.

Results showed that 85 percent of the caregivers reported a decrease in emotional and physical stress. Physical pain was relieved for 77 percent of the caregivers. Difficulty sleeping was eased for 54 percent. The few caregivers who reported contradictory results also commented on having so much stress (due to daily duties or a recent death) that they were unable to feel the benefits of massage beyond the immediate session.

The study concluded that participants experienced an overall decrease in stress, and that by offering massage as a respite intervention, hospice agencies would benefit both caregivers and the patients under their care.

"Perhaps the hospice team of the future will include a massage therapist who will work side-by-side with the nurse, clergy, social worker, and physical therapist," study author Gayle MacDonald stated. "Not only do they have the training to work with sore muscles and stiff necks, massage therapists bring with them qualities such as restfulness, tranquility, deep compassion, and the ability to listen with their entire being. Through their hands these attributes are transmitted, momentarily easing the burden and nourishing the caregiver’s body, mind and heart."

– Source: Gayle MacDonald, LMT. Originally reported in The American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care, January/February 1998 pp. 43-47. 

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