Few jobs are more physically and emotionally exhausting than taking care of another human being 24/7.
According to the AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving’s 2015 “Caregiving in the U.S.” report, an estimated 39.8 million Americans, or 16.6 percent of the population, provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older in the 12 months prior to the survey.
Mary Hartill, who lives in rural Washington, falls into this category. She cares full-time for her beloved husband, Jim, a military veteran who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
“I do everything for my husband,” she said, including lifting him in and out of bed, getting him dressed and into his wheelchair, feeding him, bathing him, and everything else he needs to get through each day.
Hartill does receive some outside help with caregiving, but only on a few days per month. The Veterans Administration pays for an aide to come in for two six-hour days, and a local organization, Rural Resources, provides assistance one day a week through its Family Caregiver Support Program.
During one of those off days each month, Hartill enjoys a very special respite from caregiver stress, just for herself: one hour with a massage therapist, who gives her a foot and leg massage.
Hartill receives her massage free of charge thanks to Rural Resources’ partnership with a local massage therapist—and thanks to a recent community service grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation, Rural Resources has been able to expand their massage therapy offerings to many more caregivers like Hartill.
The community service grants of up to $5,000 are awarded annually to charitable organizations offering massage therapy to people with limited or no access to such services, according to the Massage Therapy Foundation’s website.
Rural Resources was one of five recipients of a 2017 grant. (Others included organizations serving military personnel and families; low-income survivors of domestic violence; people coping with chronic pain and mental health challenges; and adults affected by cancer.)
Rural Resources’ service area, which comprises five counties in eastern Washington, presents additional challenges to the already difficult task of caregiving.
Transportation, especially, can be problematic when it comes to getting a loved one to a physician’s office or simply shopping for groceries. Hartill said she has to drive about 75 miles to Spokane, Washington, to visit her dentist, for example.
“Rural communities don’t have a lot of public transportation available, so even things like getting to the pharmacy to refill a prescription for loved ones can be challenging,” said Melissa Johnson, family caregiver support program coordinator for Rural Resources.
The challenges of living in a rural area contribute to caregiver stress.
“Recipients are very, very grateful for the service,” John said. “It’s really exciting when we’re able to give [massage] to caregivers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go and pay for it themselves.”
Most caregivers in her area, Johnson said, are caring for family members with age-related conditions such as dementia or memory challenges. Many care for spouses or elderly parents, and some are providing care while also raising minor children at home and holding down full-time jobs in addition to caregiving.
“People want to be independent or in their homes or with family members for as long as they can be,” said Johnson, “so we’re seeing a lot of adult children stepping up and bringing their aging parents into their own homes, or going over daily to their aging parent’s home to administer medication, make sure that they’re remembering to eat, and that they’re safe.”
The inclusion of massage therapy in Rural Resources’ offerings began with its annual caregiver conference, Johnson said, at which local massage therapists offered free massages to participants. “We wanted to be able to offer a lot more than just that,” she noted.
Then Mandi Denning, L.M.T., B.C.T.M.B., the owner of Healing Hands Massage Clinic, a local massage therapy clinic to whom Rural Resources had referred clients, sent Johnson information about the Massage Therapy Foundation’s grant program after hearing about it at the International Massage Therapy Research Conference.
“It looked like a really fantastic opportunity to be able to increase what we were already doing a little bit of for our clients,” said Johnson.
When family caregivers reach out to Rural Resources for support, Johnson explained, a case manager meets with them and completes a “stress survey,” which helps identify their unique health and well-being needs. Then a personalized self-care plan is created for each caregiver.
“When I mention that we can add therapeutic massage to people’s self-care plans, they usually get pretty excited about that,” Johnson said.
Massage therapists in the program typically offer a reduced session rate for Rural Resources clients; the grant pays the therapists, so the clients receive treatments free of charge while the therapists are compensated for their time, skills and expertise.
Benefits of Massage for Caregivers
“Caregiving is very stressful, mentally and physically,” said Rachael Monroe, L.M.T., a Healing Hands Massage therapist who works with many Rural Resources clients, noting caregivers often experience issues with their necks, shoulders and lower backs.
“[Physically] lifting up people is really hard on [caregivers’] bodies … they’re doing a lot of physical work, 24 hours a day, practically, [for] some of them,” she added.
Like many caregivers, said Monroe, many of her Rural Resources clients have gotten used to neglecting their own self-care and suffer from caregiver stress.
“They’re coming from a real point of stress and not taking care of themselves, to realizing ‘my needs are important, too; I need to also take care of myself if I want to continue providing care for my family members,’” she said.
That realization can be just as important as the physical relief massage can provide.
“I feel like they come away with more of a sense of how important their own care is, [plus] reducing some of their pain and increasing their range of motion and things like that.”
Monroe, who spent 15 years as a certified nursing assistant before becoming a massage therapist, understands well the challenges of caregiving.
“I have a lot of empathy and understanding of this particular group of people,” she said. “I’ve kind of been where they’ve been, so it’s very personally rewarding for me to be able to give back to that community through my work.”
Pain relief and an increased awareness of the need for self-care are just two of the benefits massage can bring often exhausted caregivers like Hartill, who referred to her monthly massage as both a “luxury” and a “respite.”
Johnson also told MASSAGE Magazine about a caregiver named Joe, a man in his mid-70s; he takes care of his wife, who had a stroke, and credits massage therapy with helping ease his back pain.
Susan, another Rural Resources client and the mother of a teenage daughter, takes care of her own mother, who has advanced dementia; Susan also works full-time to support her family and had gotten into a routine of rushing home on her lunch break to check on her mother.
Her Rural Resources case worker set up a respite care situation in which a professional can check in on Susan’s mother—and now, thanks to the Massage Therapy Foundation grant, Susan now receives regular massage, which helps her manage stress.
“We’re just really, really grateful to the foundation for funding this,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely impacting a lot of people positively.”
About the Author
Allison M. Payne is a freelance writer and editor who lives in central Florida. She has written many articles for MASSAGE Magazine and massagemag.com, including “Massage on Demand: The Complete Guide for Therapists” and “Pro Football Players Testify to CranioSacral Therapy’s Ability to Address Concussion and CTE.”
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