A Caring Touch: The Multiple Benefits of Massage Therapy for the Elderly

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The healing power of touch is well known albeit somewhat shrouded in mystery.

When my baby was born prematurely, she had to spend her first ten days in the NICU. I was grateful that the nurses at the San Diego hospital where she was born understood that the best medicine for her was skin-to-skin contact. My husband and I would tuck her under our clothes in what was referred to as Kangaroo Careletting her feel our heartbeat and nurturing her on our warmth and love. In addition Kangaroo Care with infants has been proven to ...

  • Help regulate their heart rate, breathing and temperature

  • Improve cognitive development

  • Improve head circumference growth and weight gain

  • Stabilize their organ function and self-regulation abilities

  • Lessen pain and crying

  • Facilitate better sleep patterns

  • Avoid infections

  • Take advantage of improved nutrition from mothers’ increase in breast milk production

  • Lead to a shorter hospital stay

There have even been cases of such care pulling infants back from the brink of death. That’s how powerful and important human touch can be.

Of course most healthy children grow up with parents that continue to cover them in hugs and kisses, patting their backs when they are sick or upset. Touch remains a mainstay in their lives as they reach adulthood and enter loving relationships with partners and it continues as they have children of their own that need hugging and holding.

In fact it isn’t until later in life, when the children are all grown up and life partners are likely to have passed away, that the elderly become especially isolated from the healing benefits of touch.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone in 2010. Studies have shown that senior isolation can lead increased risk of depression, cognitive and physical decline and even mortality. One way to mitigate the effects of this isolation, however, is through senior massage techniques.

As the baby boomers continue to age, massage therapists have begun to offer more specialized therapies with their elderly clientele in mind. A recent article LIVESTRONG expands on this, explaining,

 Massage therapy has become a credible complementary therapy helping seniors cope with the emotional ups and downs of the aging process and is now offered to the elderly in many healthcare settings. Many massage therapists who specialize in working with this population are willing to come to seniors homes to administer therapeutic massage.”

Even a simple 5-10 minute massage of the hands has been found to trigger the hypothalamus, encouraging the production of the hormone oxytocin. As the hormone is released both into the bloodstream and stored in the brain, it performs a number of different physiological functions, including reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure, increasing pain tolerance, and boosting mood. Likewise, it has been linked with accelerating the rate at which wounds heal.

The cognitive benefits of elderly massage offer relief to those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by increasing their body awareness and alertness while quelling feelings of confusion and anxiety.

One study by R. Remington concluded that,

Calming music and hand massage alter the immediate environment of agitated nursing home residents to a calm structured surrounding, offsetting disturbing stimuli, but no additive benefit was found by combining interventions simultaneously.”

Other older studies, such as Sefton's research, measured the neurological and cardiovascular effects of therapeutic massage in older adults, finding that there were positive long-term affects to full body massage.

As explained in Massage Daily,

The long-term treatment effects were assessed by comparing the therapeutic massage and control groups on balance, nervous system and cardiovascular measures pre-treatment at week six with those obtained at the follow-up testing session at week seven. The researchers found some effects to be fairly robust.”

All in all, the mounting evidence, along with the increase in aging baby boomers, sets the stage for a growing trend in geriatric massage in the years to come.

Sources:

Read all articles by Juniper Briggs 

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  • commented 2016-02-15 14:07:07 -0500
    I truly appreciate this article and the very important information contained in it. However, I would like to suggest that as a society we consider replacing the word “elderly” with something that more accurately reflects those who are in their sixties, seventies and beyond. The term “elderly” tends to connote frailty…a negative or “less than” meaning, in many cases. Today’s seniors are a very vibrant and active group of individuals, more so than in prior generations. Other options include but are not limited to “older people”, or even “elders”, which is a word that is traditionally used in cultures to reflect respect and esteem, yet without implying frailty.
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