Hands-on healing

Popularity of massage therapy on the rise for seniors

Wendy Anderson has been a massage devotee for more than 40 years, getting treatments as far and wide as Sweden, Japan, and Alaska.

And while the 74-year-old Orono resident’s enthusiasm for the ancient art has never waned, he admits his reasons for getting regular rubdowns have changed over the years: what was once purely for relaxation Anderson now sees as helpful in maintaining a healthy body. “The older you get, the less limber you are, and I think massage is beneficial for that,” says Anderson. “I also like to get a massage as late in the day as I can because I think it promotes restfulness and sleep.”

Several recent studies back up the idea that massage – ranging from the 5,000-year-old practice of Ayurvedic herbal massage to the newly created Watsu, which is performed in a heated pool at places like the Courage Center – offers more than just the chance to relax, especially for the aging population.

The Yale Prevention Research Center released a study in 2006 that highlighted the benefits of Swedish massage on osteoarthritic patients: massage proved a safe and effective way to reduce pain and improve function for those suffering from side effects like stiffness and limited range of motion. And a study by the American Massage Therapists Association showed that the percentage of people ages 65 and older that received a massage nearly tripled between 1997 and 2002 from 8 percent to 21 percent.

The statistics come as no surprise to Anderson’s regular massage therapist Elena Janowiec, whose studio is on Franklin Avenue in the Stevens Square neighborhood.

She estimates that 60 percent of her clientele is between the ages of 50 and 60 years old – a segment that has rapidly grown during her seven years as a therapist. “There used to be a mindset that massage was a luxury, and people didn’t like to spend money on luxuries for themselves,” explains Janowiec. “But now my clients are more active and aware of their health as they age, so they know massage helps with things like lower back pain and arthritis.” Anderson even went so far as to get his 98-year-old mother the gift of a first-time massage.

Janowiec adds that the payoff for clients isn’t just physical; many people find the simple act of being touched to be the most important element of the appointment. “As we age, we need a loving touch more, and that’s not something a lot of people get,” says Janowiec. “Older people aren’t touched or hugged as often, and this is a replacement.” Scientists are evaluating whether touch also helps cure illnesses: a study at the University of Iowa is assessing the effects of healing touch and relaxation therapy on cervical caner patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Just add water

Take a basic massage and submerge it. That’s the idea behind Watsu massage, where therapists work on clients while they float in a heated pool. In recent years aquatic therapy has seen growth similar to the more traditional massage performed by Janowiec, with over a million procedures billed to Medicare in 2004 compared to about half that number in 2001. Harold Dull, director of the Harbin School of Shiatsu Massage in California, first created Watsu massage in the early 1980s by floating his Zen Shiatsu (a form of Japanese therapy that involves finger and palm pressure massage) students in a pool of warm water while applying stretches and movements. Dull’s mix of traditional Shiatsu with the benefits of water – the word itself is a combination of “water” and “Shiatsu” – allow the body to be moved in ways that aren’t always possible on land.

Mary LeSourd, senior recreation aquatic therapist and Watsu therapy practitioner at Courage Center in Golden Valley, was sold on Watsu the first time she tried it nearly 10 years ago.

“The pool director had a woman trained in Watsu hold a breakout session, and when she asked for a volunteer, my hand went up,” says LeSourd. “After [receiving] just a few techniques, I said to myself ‘I’m going to need to know how to do this.'”

Today, LeSourd and co-worker Derek LaBerge tackle a large client list that has grown expansively over the past decade. “When you think of things that are on the edge in terms of alternative treatments you think of the Coasts, in particular California,” explains LeSourd. “But Minnesota? It took a while.”

While Courage Center caters to clients with disabilities that are looking for rehabilitative services, LeSourd and LaBerge take appointments from anyone who is interested – and lately that means folks over 50.

LeSourd credits the wide array of benefits attributed to Watsu for drawing in an older clientele. Increased joint mobility, muscle relaxation, reduced anxiety, improved sleep patterns, and decreased spinal pressure are just a few of a long list of results clients can expect. Plus, the fact that Watsu requires practitioners to hold receivers elevates the connection of touch and trust. Add to that the ultra-relaxing 92-degree pool and Watsu delivers a multisensory experience. “Many people say it’s like being back in the womb,” says LeSourd.

In April, LeSourd and LaBerge participated in World Watsu Week by offering free Watsu sessions to a variety of new clients, including six senior guests from a Walker Methodist residence.

Submerging first-time clients, especially those unaccustomed to Watsu or the water, is an act that requires plenty of ease and patience in both client and teacher. But LeSourd finds almost everyone who tries Watsu is quickly captivated.

“It’s an easy experience to get used to even if you’re not accustomed to the water because you have someone else there supporting you.”

Southwest Journal contributing writer Monica Wright can be reached at [email protected] or 436-4394.