projects and writings of Tracy Burkholder
In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 7.
I stand in the corner, squeezed in next to the recliner where the patient spends most of his days. I stare at the top of his purple fleece cap and try to block out the noise of the football game on the radio beside us and the noise of FOX’s election coverage on the tv in the common area just outside the door. I keep one hand across the front of his shoulder while the other moves gently down the length of his back, over and over. His breath is calm and steady. His eyes are closed. His voice is barely audible when he finally speaks.
That feels good.
Later that afternoon, I sit beside a woman curled on her side in bed and gently rub lotion into her soft hands and arms. We say almost nothing to each other, but when I pause for a moment, she opens her eyes and her hand tightens around mine.
Please stay a little longer.
When I first started out as a massage therapist, I never thought I’d end up working for a hospice provider, but now that I’m here it makes so much sense. I used to profess that I went into this field to be my own boss, make my own hours and do some measure of good. This was all true, but what really compelled me was my own personal knowledge of how hard it is, for some of us, to be deprived of touch. I experienced this as a teenager and young adult, but it’s certainly true for the elderly, especially those who are ill, bed-bound or living in care homes.
Not long ago, I read a New York Times article about loneliness and growing old that described research showing loneliness outranking obesity as a predictor of early death. It reminded me that sometimes, a caregiver’s utilitarian touch is all a dying person has to physically connect them with others. Maybe they have no family to sit at their bedside or the family visits are too brief or too infrequent. Maybe facing the death of their loved one makes the family uncomfortable, making them pull away instead of lean in.
In 2010 I studied a gentle form of massage for the frail elderly and knew that I wanted to work with this population. I got distracted from this field for a while, but this year, I finally started volunteering as a visitor with a hospice provider. As a volunteer, I could give a hug or hold hands, but I was not there to offer my massage skills. It was only this week that I started working with my first two hospice patients as a massage therapist.
I was nervous, of course, knowing that it would be different than the visits I’d done as a volunteer. Instead of being introduced to the patients by the volunteer coordinator, I’d be walking in alone into a situation I knew only from the notes of nurses and chaplains. I’d be making phone calls and driving to unknown parts of town. Plus, this was work, so I’d be responsible for logs and charts and invoices.
It wasn’t exactly easy, knowing the pain and anxiety these patients were suffering, but then I remembered how much more I trusted my hands than I did my tongue. Instead of talking, there would be touch. That, at least, was a place I was comfortable in.
Sitting with someone you know is nearing death brings one thing into sharp and immediate focus; All we have is the moment we’re in. All of us. So I smoothed my palm down the man’s stiff back. I wrapped my hands around the woman’s outstretched arm. Right then, right there, it was enough for all of us.