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What is hospice complementary therapy?

Holding hands helps both hospice patient and caregiver

By Valerie Hartman

Complementary therapy is the use of alternative therapy, alongside traditional healthcare practice, and is helpful in hospice care. There are thousands of alternative therapies identified from around the world. Acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine, guided imagery, and mindfulness meditation are a few examples.

Commonly used complementary therapies used in end-of-life care include:

  • Comfort massage
  • Light pressure reflexology
  • Acupuncture adapted to light finger pressure treatment of Acupressure
  • Healing Touch
  • Music and Art Therapy
  • Aromatherapy
  • Pet Therapy
  • Horticulture Therapy
  • Mind-Body Techniques: Guided imagery, meditation, guided progressive relaxation


All complementary therapies target the autonomic nervous system response to fear, to help the receiver relax. Most people who experience these therapies call the relief they feel “heavenly”. Fear and anxiety are uncomfortable and have physical effects. When this nervous tension is broken, stress hormones are stopped from release in the receiver’s bloodstream.  A feeling of calm is restored and physical symptoms related to stress go away. In addition, complementary therapy modalities have important emotional, social, psychological and spiritual benefits.

Hospice programs are starting to recognize the value of using complementary therapy as a regular part of patient and family care.

A hospice is not required to provide complementary therapy as a service, however many programs are. Your hospice may offer complementary therapy in one of three ways:

  •  certified massage/complementary therapists volunteer time
  • complementary therapists are hired and trained in end-of-life practice and provide sessions
  • hospice team members get certifications in therapies that can be used within their professional role. Some examples: CTRN–Complementary Therapy Hospice and Palliative Care Nurse– or a Pastoral Care member certified in bedside harp

If your hospice provides complementary therapy for patient and/or caregiver support, expect that a certified therapy session is often used to provide relief of symptoms (physical and emotional) during high times of stress.

The Softer Side of Touch, Sound, and Aroma

Simplistic forms of Touch, Sound, and Aroma Therapies enhance comfort, provide for deeper connection, and grow trust. For instance, hand massage and light touch therapies are very soothing and connecting. The hand is a safe part of the body to hold;  each hand contains a thousand nerve endings that relax the nervous system when stimulated. Reflexology techniques on the hand are the best way to quickly ease tension and stress.

For some, touch can be used to ‘speak’ non verbally when words are lost or unavailable to share in a conversation. Simple light Swedish massage techniques using massage crème can hydrate stressed skin and change a task into a nurturing experience for giver and receiver.

A caregiver can add hand massage, apply a drop of lavender essential oil to a cotton square for better sleep (leave it on the pillowcase in a room), or provide the listener’s favorite music during activities of daily living.

Whether complementary therapy is provided during a therapeutic session performed by a certified therapist or becomes a shared moment between family member and loved one during a break in the afternoon routine, using sensory experiences regularly can do three things:

  • help with coping
  • provide an experience of meaningful living, nurturing
  • instill a feeling of hope

There is a Nigerian proverb that I like very much: ‘Hold a true friend with both hands.’

I think that we can hold onto each other in many meaningful ways: holding hands, playing music, sharing art, and enhancing the beauty and the aroma of our natural surroundings. When we take a few minutes to share these simple acts together, it is a reciprocity that benefits care giver and care receiver.

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