Sometimes, it’s what the patient shares by simply speaking. But a hospice practitioner can also make inroads by what patients express with a turn of the hand, the way they’re sitting, a look on their face.
“In treating the body, we’re listening in a lot of different ways,” says Joan Blessings, a licensed massage therapist at Emmanuel Hospice based in Grand Rapids. “Sometimes, you can feel patients relax and, in that way, they’re communicating. And ultimately, that helps us help them live their best lives.”
Blessings has been a massage therapist some two decades, nearly half of those years in a hospice setting.
“At first, I really didn’t know if I wanted to do this,” she says, “because our patients pass away. But what I find joy in is giving them comfort. It can be a simple foot or hand massage, but that can create a huge difference for them.
“We believe our patients are more than just their diagnosis. So, we’ll make available all kinds of complementary therapies aimed at treating them in a truly holistic way.”
It’s remarkable, she continues, the way in which the body responds to music, to scents, to time with a pet – and of course, her specialty – massage.
At times, that can mean a light touch to someone experiencing generalized pain. In other cases, it might call for zeroing in on anything from facial muscles to the entire spine. The benefits can manifest themselves in increased mobility, reduced inflammation and more.
It takes time and practice to focus on the physical needs of each patient.
“Every patient is different,” she says. “When I go in for the first time, I am seeking to meet their expectations, and working hard to understand what those are.”
While she focuses on massage, she’s also paying attention to how else that patient might benefit from others on the care team. During the massage, they might talk about craving a spiritual connection. Perhaps they want to visit the beach or a flower garden. Another might want to sing or listen to hymns.
Blessings makes detailed notes of those desires into a digital logbook that everyone else attending to that patient can discover and then act on. A variety of complementary programs can be used alongside pharmaceutical approaches to provide physical comfort and support other health needs.
“We are so team-oriented,” Blessings says. “And everything we do is integrated on behalf of the patient, so they get everything they need from everyone with whom I work. It’s a very important part of their care program, and when a situation changes, we’re all aware of it.”
The rewards are many: “I served a woman the other day who said to me, ‘I’m 94-years-old, and I have never had a massage.’ I was able to smile and tell her, ‘Well, after I walk out that door, you won’t be able to say that anymore.’”