Caring Through Touch
I felt an easy meandering amid the flow of my conversation with Justin Magnuson, exploring various aspects of hospice volunteer work. I can imagine that our ease of communication was similar to the practice of massage, where touch becomes its own language, a unique service that Justin, a massage therapist, shares with his hospice patients. Justin admitted that he has had to muster some courage to delve into hospice work. Although his grandmother was in the care of hospice when she died, it took him awhile to accept that death was not something to be feared and that it is possible to let go of fear and embrace the mystery and meaning within end of life. Not everyone can understand this; Justin mentioned that he is still greeted by friends with confusion along with a bit of admiration when he tells them about volunteering for hospice.
“We are stronger and more resilient than we think,” Justin said.
This is his message to the world and to himself. The volunteer training and hands-on experience with patients have been the building blocks to the foundation on which he has built a new outlook on life, broadening his ability to accept and talk about death.
“The acuity of the transition to death is such that everything becomes ‘heightened’ during the last days and moments of life,” Justin noted.
He talked of small gestures taking on expansive meaning during some visits. He recounted his work with one particular gentleman struggling with severe dementia, all the while lovingly supported by his caretaker wife. As Justin massaged his patient’s back, the wife laid down beside him, stroking his face and singing James Taylor’s Fire and Rain ever so softly, filling the quiet room with stillness and beauty. Such moments for Justin are simply transcendent and are strong reminders of the power and importance of love and relationships in life. Justin also mentioned the importance of slowing down and of cultivating patience within himself to be fully present during a visit. Sometimes these moments of stillness can nurture creativity, a skill helpful in determining the most therapeutic approach to massage. Such was the case for one of Justin’s patients. After providing one month of regular back massages, Justin modified his service after noticing a real decline in the patient’s physical condition. Calling upon his creativity, Justin transitioned to rubbing the patient’s arms while in a chair and visit by visit, the massage lessened in scope but not in effectiveness, in the final days, limited to simply rubbing the patient’s hands and feet.
“Small kind gestures can mean a lot,” Justin states.
His patients have taught him that small gestures hold deep meaning including the power of receiving and sharing touch, a fondness for service and a heart-felt gratitude for connection to others. In addition to embracing small gestures, Justin feels his volunteer experience has motivated clarity about his desires for the end of his life and to have that conversation with those he loves while he can. He acknowledges that these conversations are hard and awkward. But this is another area where hospice volunteer work has supported his personal growth.
“Sometimes I just listen to a sobbing family member of a patient, the words don’t come—like my tongue is made of stone,” Justin recalls.
But in the end, by allowing himself to feel that discomfort, Justin builds a quiet inner strength. It is a strength that he calls upon with hospice volunteering, making caring touch a special part of the last days for many grateful patient
- Remember that we are always stronger than we think we are
- Gestures of kindness hold great meaning in life