SageWork - Healing Touch for Elders

By Pamela Goddard

Reprinted from and copyright by Senior Care, Ithaca, NY

Suzanne Kates, LMT working with an elder
Suzanne Kates doesn’t like to put a label on the work she does with therapeutic bodywork...or on her clients. Elders, senior citizens, retirees, older folk - whatever term you use, this is the population that Kates has focused on for SageWork - massage and Reiki for elders - for the past three years.

“I have included ‘elders’ and ‘sage’ in my business name because, to me, these words connote wisdom and experience,” says Kates. “I’m exploring the positive side of aging. I agree with Dr. Al Power, who has written that certain words can bias our view of people. Elderhood can be seen as a developmental stage, not defined by loss of physical ability but rather a synthesis of life experiences. New things are being learned by people as they age. The work with stroke patients is clarifying that. New connections can be made and new learning happens.”

Kates works with a mix of elders, some whom live at Kendall, Beechtree Care Center, and at Hospicare. She also works with people in their own homes. “I was working for the activities department at Beechtree, offering touch for people with Alzheimer's,” Kates explains. “Through that, I had family members contact me to ask whether I could work longer with someone.”

Because the condition of elders varies so much, Kates takes great care to tailor the massage to each person’s specific needs. She works for a minimum of a half an hour, providing therapeutic touch in regular chairs or beds. Feet are a popular area for work, for relaxation and improve circulation. Nearly all elders will benefit from massage, through better blood circulation, increased joint mobility, reduced muscle tension, relief from sore muscles, greater immune system capability, and healthier skin. Kates has seen massage make a difference in mood, with a shift from reluctance to acceptance. “I have seen people who are rigid and seem frightened, very alone and withdrawn into themselves. After I connect with them and touch them it seems that they’re grateful and more at ease. More alive, more relaxed. Sometimes that lasts longer than other times.”

Kates is particularly interested in making personal connections as she works with elders’ physical needs. “When I work with some [elders with dementia], I feel that somehow they are aware that I’m there and are better off from it. I feel that a lot is being exchanged in those little moments, through talk and eye contact. Being in the moment with them is a really important thing to both of us.”

One of the difficulties of reaching the elder population is their own self reliance. Massage is still seen as a luxury. They are not used to “pampering” themselves in this way. “They don’t see it as one of the ways to take good care of themselves. My job is to shed a light on that as a possibility,” says Kates.

Dignity, Compassion, and Choice

Kates places great importance on offering choice. “All too often, elders lose the ability to choose. So, the ability to say “yes or no” is important. This helps them retain their dignity,” Kates says. “I feel as though I’m just getting going in learning about the specific things that this population needs. I’m finding that there’s more and more information related to touch and massage, especially as it pertains to very old people - people over 80 who need round-the-clock care.”

Massage for older and infirm people is still a new field. Dawn Nelson, whose book From the Heart through the Hands has been influential in Kates’ work, only started “compassionate touch” for people in nursing homes in the 1990s. Kates has been taking workshops and attending conferences through the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute. Through this training, Kates has learned not just to “do for” but to help people use what they’ve got to determine how the direction of their lives. She is very interested in providing care for the caregivers, including the family members. “There’s a lot of stress and strain on those people. I would like to be able to help them out so they can do a better job.”

“What I would like to see is elders living their lives as fully as possible. I would like them to know that they are cared for and that they still count as people in the community. I believe that touch combined with compassion can convey all of these things,” says Kates.

“My parents died when I was 18 and 28. I’ve been without the benefit of elders close to me for far too long. Now, as my own retirement years approach, the work I do is for myself as well as for the elders. I want to be moved by the past experiences of their lives which they are willing to share with me. And, I want to share the moments we have to be in each other’s company in the present time.”

To make an appointment contact Suzanne Kates, owner of SageWork, at 342.3892.

Also see this article, published in 2009.