When I was in school I knew I didn’t want to work with this population.
Weren’t they always grumpy, complaining about life and fragile in their movements and abilities?
With these thoughts in mind I entered my career as a RMT thinking I would steer clear of the elderly population.
I haven’t had a lot of experience working with or being around people over 75 years old. My grandparents passed away when I was a child and even though I have older parents (my dad is 70 but you would never guess that) they have never acted ‘old’.
For this reason I felt extremely nervous about massaging my first almost 90 year old client.
A few years ago, I was working alone as a locum in a lovely space. Many of the clients there were loyal and dedicated to that clinic, including a mother and daughter who usually received a massage after one another.
At the time of our first appointment together the mother was 89 years old and I was unsure how things would go.
In she walked with the help of her cane, her hair a gorgeous shade of white and perfectly combed. She wore mascara showing off her bright eyes and blush accentuating cheekbones that any girl would die to have.
She had a clear voice but a shy smile and I could tell she was as nervous as I was. She was used to her regular Massage Therapist, who I was locuming for but our first treatment went well and we had a blast getting to know each other.
After my locum was complete this lovely lady became my regular client.
She drove herself to the clinic where I worked, every second Friday for a 45 minute massage. During the years I got to massage her she turned 90 and then 91 and to my knowledge still receives her regular massage.
Giving Respect To Your Elderly Massage Patient
I learned a lot from this lady not only massage wise but life wise.
Can you imagine out living your husband by 30 years? How about out living a son?
She has seen the world change drastically and told me all about it. To say you cannot and should not become attached to clients is crap! She was one of my favourite clients and one of the best people I knew (and still know). I made sure to treat this lady well and to help her out when possible.
If she didn’t give me 24 hours cancellation notice, I didn’t mind.
If she forgot an appointment, I would call to make sure she was ok but never charged her for a missed appointment.
I often parked her car for her if it was a tricky parking spot to get into and always stood near the massage room outside the door while she was getting undressed and redressed.
If she needed help I would be there.
I ALWAYS walked her to her car after her massage to make sure she got there ok. She would put one hand on my arm and use her cane to shuffle along the sidewalk.
If she had to park a long distance away, I would run to the car and drive it back to the clinic.
I also gave her my cell phone number in case she needed to get in touch.
When I was instructing at the Massage Therapy College I always referred to this client as my “90 year old” when providing examples of massage clients and treatments to my students. Eventually my students would start asking about her and referred to her often.
Massaging The Elderly
Each massage treatment was similar.
She had been diagnosed with stenosis of her lumbar spine and complained about weakness, numbness and tingling and cold lower limbs and feet.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the vertebral canal, where the spinal cord runs. The most common cause of spinal stenosis is wear and tear changes such as degeneration of the facet joints and intervertebral discs and the formation of bone spurs within the canal.
While massage therapy cannot change or reverse the progression of spinal stenosis, it can help to decrease pain and tight musculature around the affected area.
She also had scoliosis, which I believe was caused by degeneration, and resulted in her leaning more to one side.
She was always sore though her hips and lumbar spine and really enjoyed the relaxation of thoracic spine and upper trapezius work. Would I ever truly help with these conditions of a 90 year old woman?
No, but I certainly know she felt good during the massage (she would honestly tell me if she didn’t) and if I could help ease some pain or make her feel good for 45 minutes then I would do my best.
She was able to get onto the table and lie prone (face down) herself. I would use a moderate amount of pressure to massage through her gluteus medius and minimus, quadratus lumborum and lumbar erector spinae muscles.
I always did a general treatment for her mid and upper back and neck, then would do a lot of circulatory work for her posterior lower limbs.
It was a slow process, but I would always ask her to turn supine without my help
In my opinion if she wanted to stay independent she needed to be able to move on her own. She wouldn’t benefit anything from me helping to turn her on her back. She never asked me for help but if she really couldn’t turn over, she would have told me.
Once supine, I would massage her arms for relaxation and circulation, then finish each treatment with circulatory work on the lower limbs and feet.
Once the massage was finished I would stay in the room until she was in a seated position. Again, I didn’t help her get up off the table but was there in case she needed me. After I left the room she would dress herself.
Communicating With The Elderly In A Massage Clinic
She always asked the same questions.
I assume she would forget the answers that I told her the weeks previous and often had to repeat myself due to her forgetting her hearing aids, but she always understood what I told her.
“Do you feel my legs tingling like that?” – No only you can feel that!
“Do my feet feel cold?” – always!
“Why do my legs feel this way? My doctor doesn’t tell me much.” – I always gave her an honest answer of what spinal stenosis is.
“Do you think my muscles are still in my leg?” – yes absolutely!
She had amazing looking legs for 90 years old. While strength and stability was decreasing quickly, the shape and tone of her leg musculature would make a 20 year old jealous.
What The Elderly Can Teach Their Massage Therapist
She would often make hilarious statements followed by her huge laughter:
“Meaghan, I thought instead of getting a massage today that we could just trade legs! No? Oh fine…rub away then. I guess I can’t have everything in life!”
“I only come here because you laugh at my jokes!”
Then there were statements about life. I often wrote these quotes down and called them ‘wisdom from my 91 year old client’:
“I don’t understand how people get bored! Go do something! Go dancing, play cards, have sex! How can you get bored doing those things?”
“When you get to my age, you watch most of your friends go…and it makes you realize how great it was to love them and to laugh with them”
“I think people think life is like a bowl of cherries. They take, take, take, chew up and enjoy half and spit the rest out like it’s useless. We should be eating life like it’s seedless grapes! Enjoy the whole thing!”
“I’m 91 and I’m not ready to go yet! I want to see how things turn out. Life is too short even at 91.”
Was she grumpy? Never. I have not laughed with a client as much as I did with her.
Did she complain about life? Not once. She told me beautiful stories of times with her husband and kids. She talked about her grandkids and great grandkids. She asked me about my love life and gave me hilarious advice.
Was she fragile? Not in my eyes. She was more on the ball than most people I know who are a third of her age! She had more wit than most. She was blunt and honest. Massage wise, she could take a good amount of pressure and rarely said anything felt too sore.
Movement wise, she was slow and unsteady. She fell at home a few times and once had a hard time getting back on her feet but she continued to live on her own and drove herself around the city. In most ways she was not fragile at all.
Unfortunately, as we age we see a decrease in function in many areas: strength, stability, mobility, memory, physiological processes, metabolism and even mental health. While massage therapy may not regain anyone’s youth, I am a firm believer that it can help with mobility and stability issues and can have an incredibly positive impact on one’s state of mind. The elderly may have to deal with disease processes, slowing bodily function, loss of partners, friends and memory, but a Massage Therapist can provide a quality of life that helps them to feel better, be more positive and in my case get a ton of laughs. I moved away from the city where my 91 year old client lives but I get updates from colleagues about her. She taught me a lot about how amazing life is and that you should do the things you love and be around the people who make you smile. Since working with her, I haven’t felt nervous being around elderly people or massaging them. I learned how much the elderly can still do, their abilities and what they have experienced in life. Embrace every client and experience you can! You never know what you will learn!
As she would say, “Isn’t everyone so much more beautiful when they smile.”