Golden Opportunity

As the population ages, massage therapists need to know how to connect with older clients.

By Clare La Plante, August 15, 2012

She’s in good company in her hometown of Mars, Pennsylvania, where half of the town’s approximately 4,000 residents are older than 65, and the majority of her clients range between ages 50 and 70. She learns from these clients, some of whom walk every day, often parking their cars at one end of the main street and doing their daily errands on foot—stopping at the bank, hardware store, post office—socializing along the way. These seniors have active lives and are interested in new things—such as seeking massage for rehabilitation. “I see a lot of injuries, either chronic or acute. My job is to get them better,” she says. “So I assume the same for myself. If I get injured, I will get treatment and get healed.” This can-do philosophy molds her career goals: She plans to practice massage until she’s 85.

She’s not alone in having to face the approach of time. In 2012, fifty percent of AMTA members were age 50 or older, with a median age of 49. And a ‘traditional’ retirement—working until age 65 and then stopping abruptly—may be a thing of the past.

Preparing for the Future

The 2012 Employee Benefit Research Institute Retirement Confidence survey showed that 25 percent of workers say the age at which they expect to retire has changed in the past year. And 37 percent of surveyed workers say they expect to retire after age 65, up from 14 percent in 2008.

Experts say reasons range from lack of adequate retirement savings, decline in real estate equity, or simply that we’re living longer. However, shifting retirement mores may also be part of a trend toward people remaining active and healthier longer.

“My friends are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Nobody’s stopping working and nobody wants to because it’s creative and socially positive,” says Vicki Robin, co-author of Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, who lives on an island off the coast of Washington state where she and her friends have created a community to help care for each other as they age.

Preparing, as Robin is doing, for our inevitable golden years is a crucial step toward making these years rewarding. More specifically for massage therapists, setting goals, taking good care of yourself, taking a variety of continuing education classes, and creating an appropriate financial plan will help you create the life you want.

For one thing, if you prepare, you’re better positioned to make your own choices, not letting fate—or your health, finances, or employer—decide. And, says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee economist Keith Bender, retirees who chose when they retire are 30 percent happier in retirement. In fact, choosing your lot in life was on par with health when it came to happy later years. “What it indicates to me is that you need to be prepared before an age where you may be forced to retire,” he says.

Set Your Goals and Save

Your first step, therefore, may be simply writing down your goals (visit or for more help). Then, consider some of these questions: How many more years do you wish to work? Do you want to fully retire or simply step back from the hands-on aspects of massage therapy?’ How many hours do you wish to work? What new skills may you need? And the million-dollar question: How will you finance your choices?

Once you have these goals, you need to start saving. First, accumulate a six-month cash emergency fund. Keep this money in a low-risk account like a savings account, for example, or a money market account. “Emergencies happen, and they’re hardly ever free,” says Nashua, New Hampshire-based financial planner Sherrill St. Germain.

Track your spending, says Robin, and watch your expenditures decrease 20 to 25 percent. Robin also recommends the pleasure principle for shopping: only buy what adds value to your life and helps you align with your principles.

Start with just $25 a month if you have to. “As it adds up, it will motivate you,” says St. Germain. She keeps her own emergency account in an online bank, where she is less tempted to touch it in non-emergency times. Often, these accounts offer no minimal balances and no monthly fees.

Make sure you’re protected in other areas as well. Buy health insurance, even just a catastrophic plan with high deductibles that covers you in case of an emergency. “If you can’t afford the premiums, then you can’t afford to get sick,” says St. Germain. Consider disability insurance, too, and make sure you’re putting money aside for taxes, especially important since self-employed workers, which many massage therapists are, also have to pay self-employment tax comprising Social Security and Medicare contributions.

Then you can start saving for other necessities, such as your continuing education, which becomes invaluable as you age. “It’s so important in the heyday of your massage career to accumulate a nest egg to support you in the transition into another form of the career, if you wish,” says Robin.

Being Good to Your Body

Another essential piece to happy later working years is health. According to Rick Goggins, who is an ergonomist, massage therapist and co-author of Save Your Hands!: The Complete Guide to Injury Prevention and Ergonomics for Manual Therapists, taking a big picture perspective is invaluable.

He preaches a holistic approach. Start with good ergonomics. For example, injury-proof your workplace— the right table height, enough space to move around and adequate time between sessions.

Goggins says that at more than 20 hours of hands-on work, “you start to increase your risk of injury.” Although research presents no specifi c number yet for adequate time between sessions, “We sense that 10, even 15 minutes isn’t enough,” he adds.

When doing massage, focus on a variety of techniques. Don’t overuse parts of your body, especially your thumbs, which are prone to injury. Use hand tools when possible. Even consider doing “prehab,” where you do the same exercises you would in rehabilitation but beforehand as a preemptive strike. Most massage injuries affect the shoulders, thumbs, low back and neck, so focus on those body parts, says Goggins.

He stresses the importance of flexibility and strength, and also endurance, which we tend to lose as we age. To this end, break a sweat whenever you can—swim, run, walk briskly or garden. He recommends yoga for its strength building and core conditioning, as well as its focus on flexibility, balance, breathing and relaxation. He recommends Pilates as well for balance and core conditioning.

Woman especially should focus on weight-bearing exercises. Walking is a great exercise for everyone as a warm up before massage work, and can help you reduce your own stress. Also, remember to eat well. Try smaller meals throughout the day, and look for whole, unprocessed foods. Staying hydrated is important, too, so be sure you’re drinking lots of water as dehydration can cause muscle fatigue.

Never Stop Learning

For many people today, retirement doesn’t mean going from working to leisure. Instead, retirement may mean shifting the role you play in your current practice and finding ways to use your extensive knowledge about massage therapy in new ways. In this way, continuing education that provides you opportunities to work with a wide variety of consumer demographics is helpful. You want to give yourself as many options as possible as you age, and learning a variety of techniques and modalities is a great way to accomplish this goal.

According to Ray Siderius, a massage therapist and president of the Oregon School of Massage, “There must be a dozen disciplines that afford the opportunity to remain in the work if you need, or want, to go lighter, including craniosacral therapy, fascial therapy and reiki,” he says. Look for continuing education options that highlight using less physical force.

Goggins suggests that additional professional certifications may work well with massage. For example, if you have an interest in personal training or yoga, consider pursuing formal training in the field and pair it with your massage therapy practice.

Siderius says that many new techniques allow therapists to incorporate different parts of the body even when doing deeper work. “There’s not just one way to accomplish the benefit we think of traditionally resulting from deep tissue work. There are umpteenth variations,” he says.

Hands Off

Even if you decide to go completely hands-off, and teach, mentor a younger therapist or manage a massage business, for example, keeping involved may add to your satisfaction. “Keeping engaged also seems to drive happiness in retirement,” says Bender, who saw his own father flounder for awhile after retiring simply because he hadn’t planned, or transitioned thoughtfully enough.

Heidi McAllister, of St. Paul, Minnesota, although only 43, is already mapping out her next step. A massage therapist for more than 20 years—and, by her calculation, at least 20,000 massages—she also has business experience, running the Brick Alley Studio in Stillwater, Minnesota, for several years.

She saw her own clients there, plus leased rooms to three to six other therapists. She maintained the space, did the marketing and oversaw the office. “I never felt burnt-out by massage, but felt enough of a tap on my shoulder that it was time to start thinking about the future and a change,” she says.

When it came time to renew her lease, she told her renters her dilemma—even though they were all independent contractors, they were also colleagues who held monthly meetings together. One of her renters ended up buying the business. McAllister transitioned slowly from her active practice, over several years. First, she kept a core group of clients, but saw them in her home. She worked three half days a week.

When she was about to see her clients for the last time—and some had been with her for 14 years—she sat down with a big box of thank-you notes and a box of Kleenex. “I wrote a note to each client thanking him or her for their time, their support, for the relationship,” she says. In each card, she also included the name of a massage colleague as a referral.

McAllister is now focused on health education and coaching. “I’ve done client education in these ways for years,” she says, referring to lifestyle, building awareness, mindfulness, exercising and stress reduction education that she did with clients. She plans on creating workshops and perhaps writing a book.

She’s already using her connections among other local health providers. “We all have connections in our greater communities with other health and wellness practitioners—chiropractors, yoga studio owners, physicians, personal trainers,” she explains. “It therefore doesn’t feel like reinventing the wheel, but it feels new and fresh.”

She also plans to bring her business acumen to a joint project with her psychotherapist husband. They’re creating an online institute that will champion the holistic chronic pain rehabilitation model. She plans to administer this primarily educational site, everything from developing a member list to marketing. “Even when I take my hands out of the [work] equation, and move toward more of an educator role … massage is still providing me with the foundation to do this,” she says.

Gardner, who plans to up her hours as she ages and has more leisure time, is already learning less physically stressful techniques, including myofascial release. She chooses her continuing education classes based on those that help her learn to work more efficiently, and feels confident that she will continue to have something valuable to give to clients, no matter what. “I know that the amount I’ve learned, and the amount I’m giving stays the same even if I get injured,” she says. And if for any reason she could no longer practice hands-on massage, she would teach, volunteer or mentor. She has as an inspiration a wheelchair-bound instructor at school who was an insightful, gifted teacher.

McAllister says that massage therapists can stay connected through so many ways, and they should. “It’s important that we uphold our commitment to massage,” McAllister says. “Ultimately, when we retire, we have to support the [therapists] who come behind us. For mature therapists, it’s an important perspective for us to have.”

She says that what you’ve learned as a massage therapist can help in this process. For example, she learned to listen with her hands through doing massage, not just with her eyes or mind. “If you just listen to the ebb and flow of the work, you get what you need,” she says, whether it’s the right clients, the right type of schedule, or the right type of new work. “It’s a matter of listening and trusting, just like we do with our hands.”