For the hospice patient, caring, compassionate touch in the form of massage may have benefits more significant and more immediately noticeable than the physical benefits. People who are approaching death from a life-threatening illness are often experiencing a veritable kaleidoscope of thoughts and feelings, which may include:
- Anger about the diagnosis, the physical and mental limitations imposed by the disease, and the effects of treatment;
- Anxiety about pain, finances and how family members will cope;
- Denial about the diagnosis or progression of the disease;
- Fear about what will happen next and about death itself;
- Guilt over how the situation is affecting loved ones;
- Mood swings caused by the situation itself, drug or other therapies, or disease-related dementia;
- Depression and hopelessness;
- Thoughts of suicide.
In offering massage to the dying, your conscious presence, reinforced by caring, gentle touch, is nearly always more important than any specific bodywork technique you might use. Unconditional human contact in the form of touch acknowledges the reality of a situation. It serves to remind the person nearing death that he or she is still an individual. Touch reinforces the wholeness of the individual, regardless of what may be happening to his or her body and mind. The physical connection reassures the person that he or she is not alone, and it provides an opportunity for self-expression.
Massage is an excellent way to enhance quality of life for a hospice patient. It can help restore feelings of self-acceptance and self-esteem to a person whose body has been invaded by a debilitating, perhaps disfiguring, disease. It addresses feelings of isolation and loneliness. The right touch at the right moment can be far more effective than words in acknowledging a person’s suffering, and offering comfort and support.
Touch continues to be an appropriate caregiving technique when a person becomes less responsive or is no longer able to communicate verbally. Touch may even become the primary means of communication at such a turning point.