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The art of simple caregiving: Hand massage, hand holding, and meaningful presence

by Valerie Hartman

“Simple, careful touch of the human hand is one of the most ancient and effective means for relieving discomfort in the body.”

                                                                                                      Dawn Nelson, Massage Therapist, 2002

In February we talked about the benefits of complementary therapy in hospice care. While complementary therapies are usually provided by skilled or certified therapists, many techniques can be adapted and used in daily caregiving. Holding or massaging hands, is one natural way to develop meaningful connections and demonstrate care for the ones we love.

Why hands?

There are a few important reasons to consider spending more time hand holding and practicing hand massage techniques in caregiving:

  • Hands tell a life story; they work hard and nurture. Quiet connection through hand holding and massage can elicit a conversation between giver and receiver, often in the form of life review or meaningful story telling.
  • The act of hand holding is a natural show of affection and often conveys feelings of care and compassion that words cannot.
  • Holding someone’s hand is a reassuring gesture that everything is going to be ‘alright’, especially for those who fear being helpless, alone or abandoned. Fears and uncertainties respond to comforting presence and touch.

Why add this caregiving task to all the other ones?

  • Hand massage has a clinical benefit by relieving anxiety and discomfort in the body. Hands contain 1000 nerve endings each. Hand massage stimulates nerve endings that cause the whole nervous system to calm down. If someone is restless, sleepless, struggles with breathing, or anxiety, using hand massage can help alleviate a symptom that is in part caused by nervousness.
  • Hands hold each other. Hand massage is a mutually beneficial caregiving task because it is meditative and relaxing to give, providing comfort for both you and your loved one.

Getting started is easy and only requires your caring presence and a few easy to obtain items. You will want to set a quiet, calm environment, which may include peaceful music, nature sounds, or silence. Gather materials, including massage cream or oil, towel, and a bed pillow. Add aromatherapy oils such as lavender to the lotion, if desired. Following a simple hand massage procedure can relieve any uncertainty you may have about how to perform this caregiving task.

As you perform the hand massage and hand hold techniques, you may observe a sense of peace and serenity as your loved one’s face softens and the body posture begins to relax. You may also begin to see breathing ease.

There is no pressure to rush; approach this time in an unhurried manner. This is a task to look forward to. It is a time for meaningful connection and has an important place in the care and coping for everyone involved.

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