A Touch of Compassion: Massage Therapy and Alzheimer’s Disease

You believe in the benefits of massage therapy. Chances are you talk to your clients fairly regularly about how massage therapy can help with everything from pain relief to stress relief. With your skills, education and passion, you have the ability to reach a wide variety of people who will benefit from massage therapy.

Today, there’s a lot of opportunity out there for you to work with different client populations. And, as more and more research is done on the benefits of massage therapy, the opportunity you have will only grow. To make informed decisions about what working environments best fit your personal and professional goals, however, you need information.

In the following, you’ll find detailed information on what you can expect when working with clients with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as many residents in long-term care facilities with chronic care needs more generally.

Understanding The Need

The numbers. It’s no secret the population is aging and life expectancy is increasing. But some of the numbers regarding aging might surprise you. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.3 million people currently have Alzheimer’s disease, and the disease is the seventh leading cause of death in adults. Particularly with the aging population, some estimates suggest that 16 million people will have Alzheimer’s by the year 2050. “It’s been said that in 25 years, the United States will have two kinds of people: those who have Alzheimer’s disease and those who are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Ann Catlin, founder of the Center for Compassionate Touch and an expert in the field of massage therapy in elder care and hospice.

For those massage therapists interested in working with this special demographic, that’s a lot of people who can benefit from your professional services.

The Benefits

“People with Alzheimer’s disease don’t lose the capacity for human emotion or recognition of a caring touch,” Catlin says. “What I’ve seen is that even a person in the very late, severe state of Alzheimer’s retains all these capacities.”

There are several benefits massage therapy offers people with Alzheimer’s disease, including increased body awareness and alertness, as well as a reduction in the feelings of confusion and anxiety. “You also build reassurance and trust,” says Catlin, “and help calm agitation.” 

Massage therapy can also help ease the effects of isolation, loneliness and boredom while encouraging feelings of worthiness and well-being, Catlin believes.

The Research

Although Catlin believes that more research needs to be done, she does point to studies that indicate that the use of some forms of massage are effective in managing some of the challenging behavior exhibited by elders living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

For example, a 2002 study by R. Remington on the effect calming music and hand massage had on agitated behavior in persons with dementia found that both calm music and hand massage reduced verbal agitation, and the benefit was sustained for up to one hour.

A 1995 study conducted by Snyder et. al. examined the effect a five-minute hand massage protocol had on care activities that were often associated with agitation behaviors. Both aggressive and non aggressive forms of agitation were studied. The hand massage took five minutes, and was performed in the morning and afternoon for 10 days. Results showed that hand massage decreased the frequency and intensity of agitated behavior during morning care routines, but not during evening care.

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