The Comfort of Touch in Hospice Care

Massage therapy is one of the most effective ways to help hospice patients relax and find comfort in their last days and hours. 

Hospice is fundamentally about giving peace, support and comfort to people in the last stages of life.  Often there is pain that cannot be managed by medication — a deeper spiritual pain and anxiety. Alternative and holistic therapies can help in ways conventional medicine cannot.

Massage therapy is one of the most effective ways to help hospice patients relax and find comfort in their last days and hours. 

“We start out in life understanding touch and tone of voice as babies,” says Ecumen Hospice Massage Therapist Carol Nelson. “The same is true as we are exiting life.” Touch and tone of voice become a primary way of communicating with hospice patients, particularly those who are in fragile and nonverbal states.

“People who can’t talk can benefit from touch,” Carol says.  Massage offers many physical benefits, she says, such as relaxing muscle tension, stimulating circulation and reducing swelling.

But, more importantly, massage also touches the heart and the spirit. “We’re giving something different than medical care — something for the spirit. To me, spiritual care is the most important aspect,” she says.

Anxiety and agitation often are present in the last stage of life, Carol says.  Even if physical pain is well controlled, there can be a deep spiritual distress. “Often it’s not about pain.  It’s just plain anxiety about where am I going?”

Carols says the type of massage she uses in hospice is very different from that in her private practice. “Since most hospice clients are not as verbal or alert as the general public," she says, “I read body language and use a lighter touch at a slower pace — out of respect for a person’s fragile condition. I let the client set the tone and make decisions about what is most comforting to them. I’ve learned to follow my instincts and watch responses and adjust.”

She relies more on gentle “energy therapies” such as Healing Touch and acupressure that help remove energy blockages. “Patients who are highly agitated often calm down and may even fall into a deep sleep,” she says.

Massage therapy is a second career for Carol.  She worked in Information Technology in software development and started studying massage, thinking it would make a good career when she retired.  But a downturn in the IT job market in 2001 accelerated her plans. She got her national certification and has been doing massage therapy ever since. “It captured my heart,” she says.

“I am honored to be part of people's processes as they work through the decline and conclusion of their lives,” Carol says. “It is immensely satisfying to me to hear the things people choose to tell me about their lives as I am working with them.”