Tracy Burkholder, LMT: Providing Massage to People at Different Stages of Life

Massage therapists — many of them — like to fix things. They tout their ability to have people back out there on the playing field. There is another side to therapeutic massage, however. Touch can bring comfort long after the point where a person can be fixed or healed or even granted a few more weeks with their loved ones. For some practitioners, this is one of the most rewarding forms.

“I’ve learned the importance of listening, remaining open to the unexpected, and how valuable it can be to bring touch to a person without the need to ‘fix’ anything” ~ Tracy Burkholder, LMT

It’s an area Tracy Burkholder knows well. She has 23 years of experience as a massage therapist, and she has her hands in different worlds. As the proprietor of Bene Massage in Portland, Oregon, she provides massage services to people at different stages of life ( Body awareness therapy, cupping, and signature therapeutic massage services may appeal to those who are in their prime. But Burkholder also works as an independent contractor to provide hospice massage: gentle therapeutic touch for those at the end of life. She advertises her willingness to travel to nursing homes and assisted living facilities to provide services.

“Massage,” Burkholder states, “can bring relief to the elderly suffering from isolation, anxiety and of course, the aches and pains of an experienced body.”

What separates geriatric massage, and particularly hospice massage, from other modalities is more than just the pressure the therapist applies.

Hospice Massage

“(Hospice massage) requires me to be present and open-hearted,” Burkholder states. It’s part of what she likes about practicing in this setting. She knows she’s providing people with something that matters deeply. Some people at the end of life are touched only by nurses and caregivers who, however kind, have their attention focused on meeting basic bodily needs. Burkholder wants to offer something more, and she has had the opportunity repeatedly to see that people respond to that ‘something more’. People may still communicate their appreciation, even when talking is too difficult. The times when she’s aware that the recipient appreciates the touch – whether they communicate it verbally or nonverbally – are her favorite moments of hospice massage. It can feel rewarding indeed to offer human connection to people who are so vulnerable.

Foundations for Practice

If one is considering working with people at the end of life and doesn’t have prior experience, volunteering in a hospice setting can be invaluable. It can help take prospective therapists from knowing that they like to bring others comfort to knowing what their own comfort level is in the presence of people who are dying. Burkholder spent time volunteering in hospice before offering massage services there.

Those who feel the calling have resources available to them. Burkholder notes that there are an increasing number of organizations that offer training. She has pursued training through more than one.

Everflowing is a highly respected provider and one she knows well. At the helm is Irene Smith, a pioneer in the field. Everflowing offers a 33-hour hospice massage course that includes clinical practice and is approved by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. It is available to massage therapists and other healthcare professionals. There are also articles posted for the general public ( A key takeaway: There is a difference between healing a person and creating oneself in a way that their presence is healing.

Compassionate Touch is another organization Burkholder knows first-hand. This one, she notes, has changed its target audience; the organization now focuses on caregivers as opposed to massage therapists. A visit to the website reveals coursework in therapeutic touch for professionals who care for people who have dementia and/ or are receiving palliative care.

Daybreak Geriatric Massage Institute is another organization that may be of value. It is about geriatric massage, not specifically about hospice.

The Business Side of Healing

Almost all of Burkholder’s hospice services are as an independent contractor with one hospice organization, though she is sometimes contacted by family members of individuals who are at the end of life. Hospice is not an area where she has to give attention to marketing. She recognizes, though, that marketing can be a challenge. One issue is economics. Burkholder notes that one can find information about the business side, too, in hospice trainings.

Some massage therapists, she states, like to maintain referral relationships with multiple organizations. A massage therapist may seek out organizations that are open to being educated about the benefits of massage as well as those that are knowledgeable of, and actively seeking, services. Even in her current role, Burkholder sometimes needs to educate nurses and social workers about what she does so that they can refer patients who will benefit.

Cultivating the Mindset

Preparation involves more than knowledge about human lifespan development or the hospice industry or even what behaviors to affect when one enters the space of someone who is at the end of life. “Having been in the massage field for 23 years,” Burkholder states, “I’ve learned the importance of listening, remaining open to the unexpected, and how valuable it can be to bring touch to a person without the need to ‘fix’ anything.”