Massage and the Caregiver

By Karrie Osborn

One-third of the US adult population are considered caregivers—those who work on average between 14 and 35 hours a week caring for a loved one. Whether it’s sitting by someone’s hospice bed, holding their hand, and just being present for them; or the seemingly more stressful tasks of taking your loved one to their doctor appointments, advocating for their health care, making sure all the doctors on their case are talking and know what the other is doing, and ensuring all the right meds are being taken, caregiving in any situation is exhausting.
Caregivers, however, often don’t realize the stress they are under until they’ve hit a wall. Many say they simply don’t have time to even stop and realize it. Massage is one stress-relieving tool that you, or the caregivers in your life, could look to for respite.

Emotional Exhaustion

Caregivers are growing in numbers as aging baby boomers settle into retirement and the golden years. Their families, friends, and loved ones are often called to assist in this part of the aging process.
In a caregiving role, the emotional component alone is enough to exhaust anyone—what’s harder than living day to day with your heart wide open? Think about it: What kind of emotional energy does it take to remain that present, that open, that ready for the loved one lying in the bed before you?
And all the while, these thoughts race through your mind: What more can I do for her? Am I ready for her to go? Is she ready to go? Is she comfortable? Is she in pain? Is her breathing labored? Does that wince mean she’s in pain?  
It’s a never-ending process—until it does end. But, until that moment, it’s one of the most important (and most exhausting) things we can do for another—being present with intention in a caregiver’s role.

Caregiver Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic, “People who experience caregiver stress can be vulnerable to changes in their own health,” often without being aware of it. Here are signs the Mayo Clinic tells caregivers to watch for:
• Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
• Becoming easily irritated or angry
• Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
• Feeling sad
• Feeling tired often
• Frequent headaches, pain, or other physical problems
• Gaining or losing weight
• Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep
• Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy

The Caregiver’s Assignment

Caregivers will tell you they don’t have time to think about their own issues as they run between grandma’s house and the kid’s soccer practice, all while trying to figure out how to get food on the table for both households. Sometimes even thinking about the joys an 8-hour night of sleep could bring, or how good a warm bath would feel is enough to bring on the guilt for the caregiver trying to do it all.
But the edict is true: You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first. When you’re on an airplane, the flight crew instructs parents to put their oxygen masks on first in case of an emergency, and then attend to the children. The reason? You can’t save the children if you pass out from lack of oxygen first. The same is true in life: Understanding the importance of self-care is like putting on your oxygen mask first—it will benefit you both in the end.
And what does putting on that oxygen mask look like for caregivers? Proper sleep, proper nutrition, proper exercise, and an appointment with your favorite massage therapist.

Research Confirms It

In a recently published article, “Therapeutic Massage to Enhance Family Caregivers’ Well-Being in a Rehabilitation Hospital,” researchers identified several goals they wanted to explore, including understanding the impact massage had on the psychological functioning of family caregivers. Depending on the research subject group, caregivers were given one 60-minute massage per week for two weeks or three 60-minute massages per week for two weeks. The massages were given in a private massage room in or near the hospital by a trained and licensed massage therapist.
According to Niki Munk, PhD, LMT, an associate professor of health sciences at Indiana University, the results of the study found “the emotional well-being and perceived stress significantly improved for all participants receiving massage. Both groups had less depression, anxiety, somatization, and stress after the study than before. Participants reported pain and tension relief, better sleep, and relaxation from the massages. In addition, nearly all participants indicated their mental health improved during the program. Several participants also indicated the massage-induced breaks helped them rejuvenate, have a better attitude, and feel more focused with their caregiving responsibilities." Notably, the benefits of massage were felt regardless of whether the participant received one massage per week or three, demonstrating that simply receiving massage was more important than the frequency of massages.

Time to Put on the Oxygen Mask

Caregiving is one of the hardest jobs there is. To be successful and ensure you don’t hit the burnout wall, make sure you put your oxygen mask on first, practice self-care, and connect with your massage therapist today to schedule an appointment. Be your own best caregiver and make that appointment!

Karrie Osborn is editor of Body Sense magazine.