Providing Comfort through Touch:
Therapist develops special style of bodywork for sick,
Interview with Mary Kathleen Rose by Debra Melani
What is Comfort Touch?
“It is a style of bodywork that gives special consideration
to the physical and emotional needs of the elderly and chronically
ill client. Its primary intention is to provide comfort through
techniques that promote deep relaxation and relief from pain.”
Why did you decide there was a need?
“A lot of the techniques that are most commonly used
in the massage profession, such as Swedish and neuromuscular
massage, are actually not advisable for use with the elderly
or the ill. They can cause damage to tissue. They are too
How did you develop it?
“I looked at what I was doing intuitively, and then
also talked with other people who had been doing massage with
hospice. It’s very much been a process of many people’s
feedback, including from families and nurses who have observed
the benefits of massage.” Comfort Touch is part of a
number of what the hospice calls comfort care measures, she
said. “That’s really what the hospice approach
is about: What can we do to make the patient comfortable?”
Why is it so important to the dying?
“I think touch is a basic human need, and a lot of times,
when people are very sick, people around them are afraid to
touch them. I’ve seen this when I’m with patients
and their families. Sometimes when we touch a patient, they
are so grateful for the comfort of that human connection.”
Rose said she believes massage has a very calming effect on
the nervous system, which also can help ease the pain.
And why is it important for the elderly?
I train many people who work in nursing homes. It’s
a growing population. And in our culture, as they grow older,
they tend to be more isolated. So just the feeling of being
touched lets them know that they’re important.”
What types of unusual challenges does the therapist
who is offering this type of massage face?
“One would be just a need for different techniques,
the need to adapt techniques to make it safe and appropriate.
The second thing would be adapting to the physical situation.”
Rose said when working with ill or elderly patients, the therapist
does not have the advantage of a massage table at optimal
height, for instance. Therapists might have to work on a patient
in a wheelchair or a hospital bed. Their working space might
be awkward and cramped. “So we have to adjust our body
mechanics,” she said. “The third challenge would
be dealing with the emotional issues. When you are with someone
who is sick, does that make you afraid of being sick? When
you are with someone who is old, does that bring up your own
fears about aging and disability?” Rose said therapists
must learn to deal with the feelings and connect with the
patient, which leads to personal growth. “You do come
face to face with your own fear.”
communication be trying?
“Sometimes people can’t talk, or they’re
semi-comatose, and so the therapist then needs to be really
sensitive.” But she advises her students to still touch.
“The experience of touch is very profound whether people
can communicate verbally or not.” Rose said she has
noticed a change in breathing and muscle relaxation in comatose
“This sort of goes back to part of my commitment to
this field. I was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes
in 1985, just a couple of months after I graduated from massage
school. I was in the emergency room in a diabetic coma and
unable to talk. But I was very aware.” Rose said a caring
nurse quelled her fears. “When someone touched me, I
knew I was going to be OK. That really stayed with me.”
Rose said it has since been a part of her mission to let
those in the medical profession know the value of touch. “When
you touch someone with the intention to offer comfort, and
to offer support, it does make a difference.”
Do Comfort Touch therapists generally go over special
precautions with health-care professional before working on
“They get information on the person’s condition
before they begin. For example, if there is a tumor in a certain
part of the body, they would avoid that area. Or, if there’s
a particular pain, they would emphasize working on that area.”
You have written a booklet on bereavement. Why is
that important here?
It’s really a concise booklet talking about what constitutes
a loss, which can be divorce, residential moves, separations,
job loss and any life changes. So it is just to help others
recognize that people grieve for a lot of different reasons.”
Rose said it is important for massage therapists to understand
the cycle of grief. “A lot of times, people come to
you for massage because they are going through a loss.”
What about dealing with your own emotions; how does
spending your day giving comfort to the dying affect you,
knowing that that patient might not be there tomorrow?
“I thing that part of it for me is trust in the process.
One of the things that I love about hospice is that death
is not seen as failure. Death is part of life, and what we
really do is support people to go through their dying process
in a way that respects them as a living, breathing person.
It’s really about quality of life. I think in our culture,
we fight death and resist it and therefor make it more painful.”
. Mary Kathleen Rose has produced a video Comfort Touch Massage
for the Elderly and the Ill, and is the author of Bereavement:
Dealing with Grief and Loss.
Reprinted with permission of Daily Camera ©2000. Boulder,
TOUCH DVD - NOW AVAILABLE
This beautifully produced video introduces the viewer to
the principles and techniques of Comfort Touch, a nurturing
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elements of Comfort Touch with demonstrations of its applications
in the seated, supine and side-lying positions.
This program will inspire the viewer - whether healthcare
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