More Than A Massage
By Tara Goulding
I met Barbara* in March 2015. I still remember her first appointment – she booked me for in-home massage for general aches and pains, not uncommon for an 83 year old. I arrived at her retirement village apartment and found her in the kitchen, which was the only area with enough space to set up my massage table. Her intake was the longest I have ever done, with Barbara’s health history being very extensive, her list of complaints very long, and her desire to have someone listen to her also very strong.
Barbara was not the sort of woman who ever went to the doctor, firstly because she had trouble getting there but more significantly, she didn’t trust the medical system and was afraid that she’d end up in hospital and never come out. While Barbara presented with several signs and symptoms, nothing had actually ever been diagnosed, and my suggestions to get particular problems checked out were always pooh-poohed. However, there was nothing to her, or my, knowledge that would prevent her from receiving massage, so we were all systems go.
I set up my massage table in her kitchen at the lowest height, assisted her up and helped her get comfortable. Within five minutes of starting the actual massage, Barbara was already making “Ohh! Ahh!” massage noises and asked about my schedule to book her next session. She confided that she spends most of her time alone as her husband died many years ago, most of her friends have died, and her son Nick* lives in the city and only visits every couple of weeks. It was then that I realised, even if she didn’t, that I was there to provide her with much more than massage therapy, and that she wasn’t going to be the only one benefiting from our sessions together.
I saw Barbara eight times in five months, always working gently on her while she told me stories of her life. She was one of those people who had really *lived*, doing exciting things like driving cross-country in foreign lands, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, building her own house (I mean, actually building it with her own two hands), and travelling to exotic far-away places. I have no doubt that she enjoyed telling me these stories as much as I enjoyed listening to them – therapy for us both, really!
Then I didn’t see her for nine months, but when she did call me again she told me she wasn’t sure if she could still get massages – she couldn’t get undressed/dressed and couldn’t get up onto the massage table anymore, and was basically living in her lounge room and sleeping in her recliner. No problem, I said, let’s set a time for your next session and when I arrive we can reassess what you can and can’t do and work around that. From then on, I was massaging Barbara fully clothed – her hips while she was standing with support from her walker, and then her legs, feet, arms, hands, shoulders and head while she was seated in her recliner. Not the easiest way for me to work I admit, and I discovered that I’m probably too old to be sitting cross-legged on the floor, but it got the job done and Barbara was happy.
Barbara filled me in on everything that had happened since I saw her last – from trouble with her carers, her last friends in the retirement village dying, issues with her son Nick, and the doctor increasing her pain medication. Some of these made her tired, so she would often doze off during our sessions. Other times she would say to me as I arrived “I haven’t taken my tablets yet, because I really want to talk to you today.” Barbara wanted to increase the frequency of her massages to every two weeks, and I suspected it was only partly due to her physical issues.
However, Nick wasn’t so convinced of the benefits of my visits, and made her life a bit difficult in regards to our sessions, telling Barbara she was “wasting her money”. When he moved in with her, our sessions became less open and honest on her part, and more fearful that he would ruin the relaxation experience for her. He and I almost had words about this once – I say ‘almost’ because I diffused the situation as quickly as he started it, but I could tell that it still really upset Barbara.
Her mood hadn’t been great the last few times I saw her and she wasn’t eating much at all. She said she just didn’t feel hungry, and didn’t want to eat all the things she used to love. The next time I visited, I brought her two hot cross buns. She was so incredibly thankful that she cried with delight that someone cared enough to do that for her. Just about made me cry too, let me tell you! It’s amazing how happy two 50c buns can make someone.
Another seemingly little thing that made Barbara happy was that I often wore flowers in my hair. She would always ask me to turn around so she could see which flower I was wearing that day, and the really pretty ones had their photo taken (I assume the back of my head is not internet-famous from these photos, but you never know). Her favourite one was a really colourful flower-comb from American Samoa. I once forgot to flower-up and was about to leave the house, then went back and re-styled my hair so I could add a flower and create a little more happiness for her – it’s the little things that matter.
As the months went by and her health deteriorated (and she still refused to seek medical attention), Barbara’s son realised how much his mother loved my visits and how much the massage therapy benefited her both physically and mentally. They both agreed that they wanted to increase my visits to weekly. Barbara’s demeanour had started to change though – our client-led conversation was becoming more serious and introspective, and she was talking about getting her affairs in order, making sure her will and finances were OK, and wanted Nick to promise not to take her to a hospital. This, along with some new clinical signs, was pointing to the fact that Barbara was very close to the end of her life. She was not in good health physically or emotionally, and she knew it. There were some visits where all I could do was massage her hands gently while she drifted in and out of fairyland. At one point she even asked me, “Why is it taking so long for me to die?” I mean, what can you say to that, except to be silently thankful that your massage studies included a big component of counselling skills.
Everyone tells us to keep a professional distance from our clients, to not form friendships.
But I say, how can we not, especially at times like this? I was Barbara’s only friend, and even then it was only for an hour a week. She needed me for more than just my hands. I was finding that although I felt privileged to be assisting Barbara so personally during this time, I was also dreading the inevitable – every time I arrived at her home and let myself in, I’d feel that little bit of relief when I heard her call out “I’m still here!”
I’ve had clients die before – an elderly man with brain cancer who couldn’t speak a word of English, but loved being touched. An elderly lady who lay so still she had me checking her breathing just in case. A lovely middle-aged father of two who thought he’d survived stomach cancer, whose obituary I stumbled upon not long after he stopped calling me for appointments. But Barbara was different. Barbara was my friend.
Of course, the day I’d been dreading came too soon – two years and 39 massages after I met her. I updated my Facebook that day:
“My client died last week. The day after I last saw her. I arrived at her home today for her usual weekly appointment, and her son apologised for not calling to save me the trip. We sat and talked for a bit, I helped him arrange some flowers into a vase, and he gave me her Tibetan Singing Bowl that she had told him she wanted me to have. Feeling rather strange at the moment.”
After I left her home for the last time that day, I realised how much this experience had affected me over the last few months. As Massage Therapists, we often see people at their most vulnerable. Helping a client through their time of death (and for Barbara, it was not an easy death) is taking this vulnerability to the next level. It’s a rare gift when someone allows you to be part of their most intimate thoughts, feeling and fears, and I consider it an absolute privilege that Barbara wanted me around at her end of days. Almost two years later, and the Tibetan singing bowl is still in the same spot. I don’t really know how to use it properly, but it’s special, so it stays.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
If you need to talk about any of the topics raised in this article, Lifeline is available 24/7 – phone 13 11 14 or find a counsellor via the resources listed on The Art of the Counselling Referral article. The following state based grief counselling organisations may also be helpful:
- Victoria – Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
- South Australia – Grieflink
- Queensland – QLD Government information and resources
- Western Australia – The Grief Centre of Western Australia
- Tasmania – Counselling Tasmania
- NSW/NT – no central support service.
About the Author
Tara Goulding has been a Massage Therapist since 2006, in both Parramatta and now Central Coast (NSW). Most of her massage career has been spent as a mobile therapist – she loves being able to offer this convenience to her clients while also offering herself a convenient excuse not to exercise. She lives on a farm with her husband, Star Trek-loving rooster, three ducks, and a revolving door of foster bunnies and guinea pigs.