A photo of a person holding their lower back with both hands is used to illustrate the concept of chronic pain.

At Be Well Madison, a community wellness clinic, massage therapy is not just a luxury reserved for those with extra disposable income. Massage is also being used as a tool to change the lives of low-income older adults living with chronic pain, largely thanks to community center outreach and a two-years-in-a-row Community Service Grant award from the Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF).

One of 2021’s winning projects was “Therapeutic Massage Clinic for Low-Income Older Adults Experiencing Chronic Pain.” The project netted $5,000 in grant money (sponsored by a gift from Biotone) for its second year in a row and has continued to resend hope to a population that rarely experiences positive physical touch.

Meet the Massage Clients

Laura Novak
Laura Novak

Madison, Wisconsin’s population includes numerous adults who are living on a limited, fixed income while dealing with chronic pain, often without being able to afford health insurance, said Laura Novak, Be Well Madison’s lead massage coordinator, who organized and launched the outreach to lower-income adults.

Because of this lack of access to regular care, many perceive massage interventions as an extension of their health care. This was especially critical during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when cancellations and lockdowns limited people’s health-and-wellness-related activities.

“The people were so grateful,” Novak told MASSAGE Magazine. “Especially the older population: All their programming had been canceled so they weren’t getting any movement. And so, their bodies and their pain were just so much worse with the lack of exercise and movement. And many of them don’t have the internet or a device, so they couldn’t access Zoom classes and things like that. So, they were super grateful to have us.”

Wraparound Care for Chronic Pain

Many of these people, Novak said, had largely given up hope regarding pain relief. “Most of them have a long list of [health] conditions and have been told, ‘We don’t really have anything else for you.’

“A lot of them are on painkillers, nonsurgical, and have never thought about massage for their pain, or really realized it was an option,” she noted. “And so, we actually were amazed at the results of how drastically it helped them. And a lot of it, I think, was really the connection. Having someone listen to them, listen to their health care needs, talk them through barriers.

“The program is really designed to provide wraparound care,” Novak said. She added that some clients who benefit from massage for chronic pain start seeing a health coach for more in-depth care, and that this connection often has life-changing effects on people.

“It was really remarkable how much their lives changed from 30 minutes of massage,” Novak said. “They started walking, they started gardening, they started socializing. It really felt like they just needed somebody to listen to them and to kind of tell their story.

“They were told there was no hope and their pain would always be horrible, and it wouldn’t ever get any better. And so, experiencing the relief they got from massage made them realize there was a way to feel better.”

Other community members may be reluctant to receive massage services because of a general distrust of the health care system born of past bad experiences with it.

“It’s been really rewarding to be trusted with people who don’t trust the medical system,” said Novak. “They do not want to go to the doctor. They do not want to fill out paperwork. They’ve had really bad experiences with the system, and this is kind of a nice foot in the door for them to realize they have some advocacy and some autonomy over their own health care.”

Free Massage, Paid MTs

Clients are referred into the program by the local community center, which also handles scheduling and client reminder calls, but clients pay nothing for their massage services, which are fully funded. The massage therapists’ work time and skills are not donated, though; Novak stresses that the program uses professional, experienced massage therapists, not students.

“The massage therapists get paid $25 per 30-minute treatment, and that’s all funded through Be Well,” said Novak. MTs who work in the program must carry liability insurance, she noted.

One challenge, she added, has been finding massage therapists to provide massage in the program. Novak launched using massage therapists she recruited from her own private practice and now puts out a notice on a local Facebook group, Good Local Madison, to attract new therapists.

“It’s been tricky to get people to give that time, even though it’s paid,” Novak said. “We also wanted to be careful about having a really high caliber of experienced, good massage therapists who knew how to handle people and how to handle cultural differences, and just the level of someone coming in with four severe medical conditions.”

A session room used to provide massage therapy to Be Well Madison clients suffering from chronic pain. This program was made possible by a grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation. Courtesy of Laura Novak.
A session room used to provide massage therapy to Be Well Madison clients suffering from chronic pain. This program was made possible by a grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation. Courtesy of Laura Novak.

The massages offered through Novak’s program generally take place in one of the community centers they partner with to receive new-client referrals. One has a simple, closed-door room where clients are massaged, while the other is attached to apartments and has the massage therapists working in a multi-use apartment.

A New Bridge

“They’re the most grateful clients I’ve ever had; they just value it so much,” Novak said. “We weren’t sure if we were going to be back this year because we didn’t have funding yet. And when I went last week, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you’re here. I didn’t know what I was going to do.’

“I wish more massage therapists would make this happen in their communities, because I think it’s just been way more rewarding than I expected from both being a massage therapist and the people we’re serving,” Novak said.

“I feel beyond grateful to MTF for making it possible for us at Be Well to create safe, healing spaces for all people in our community to access high-quality bodywork for their pain,” she added. “This program has created a bridge in our community that is connecting community members with integrative health care modalities, like massage, that can and are increasing their overall wellness.”

Apply for a Grant for Your Project: Every year, the MTF awards grants to projects working to bring therapeutic massage to the community. For more information about MTF Community Service Grants, contact the MTF. The MTF awards a maximum of $5,000 per year-long project.The next awards cycle has begun, with a submission deadline of March 1.

Allison M. Payne

About the Author

Allison M. Payne is an independent writer and editor based in northeast Florida. She has written many articles for MASSAGE Magazine, including “You Asked: What Can Craniosacral Therapy Address?” and “Massage for Medical Professionals: Your Skills Are in Demand.”