BONITA SPRINGS — Imagine going months, weeks, or maybe even years without a single friendly touch.
For the elderly, that's not uncommon, said Fern Ritacca, president and founder of Healing Through Touch, a service that specializes in holistic and alternative services for the senior population.
As people age, they often lose friends, family and spouses. With those losses go handshakes, hugs and all the good feelings that accompany them.
But that doesn't mean people stop "craving that touch, that attention," said Ritacca, a businesswoman who now resides in Bonita Springs and may look to set up business operations here as she has in the Chicago area.
In younger populations, a massage may help to relieve stress and soothe tight muscles. In the elderly, it can have a different purpose, Ritacca said.
Not only can a massage provide much-needed personal interaction, it can help improve health and overall wellness, she said.
Ritacca believes a healing touch can even prolong longevity, citing one client who started receiving massages from Ritacca's company when she was 85. Now, that client is 92.
"I've had the same clients forever," she said. "That's how much they appreciate it. That's how much they get out of it."
Ritacca has been in health care for more than 20 years and holds a Master's of Science in Exercise Physiology.
Originally from the Chicago area, she implemented and designed the Osteoporosis Complete Aerobic Resistant Exercise education program at Lake Forest Hospital's Health and Fitness Institute. She also worked in the administrative side of health care and served as a consultant for pharmaceutical company Merck.
Throughout her career, she found that her attention continued to return to the health-care needs of seniors, Ritacca said.
Then, in the early 2000s, she established a new community exercise program at the Seasons at Glenview Place, an assisted living center in Northbrook, Ill. It was in conducting research for that program that she began to discover the benefits of touch on the elderly.
"That's where I first got the idea of Healing Through Touch. I realized that because I worked so closely with clients, my job involved touching, healing," she said.
She noticed how something as simple as a pat on the arm or a gentle neck rub could prompt a client to lighten and brighten.
"It was just all about watching people react to touch," she said. "It was a light bulb moment."
Moreover, Ritacca had learned there was ample research to show the specific advantages that touch could bring to a mature client. In addition to increasing relaxation, massage therapy has been shown to decrease inflammation of joints, which is beneficial for arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis. Massage can increase blood circulation and range of motion, while decreasing muscular stiffness.
Psychologically, massage has been known to increase a sense of well-being and cause positive mood changes. For patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease, massage may reduce anxiety and improve communication, Ritacca said.
"Sometimes they have a hard time expressing themselves," she said of her elderly clients. "But you know when they're happy and you know when they're not."
Ultimately, Ritacca decided to devote herself full-time to providing a range of holistic therapies such as massage, Reiki and aromatherapy to the elderly. That was seven years ago, and at its peak, Healing Through Touch employed seven therapists in the Chicago area to provide a variety of such services. Therapists would visit clients in their home or in assisted living facilities, and were often referred to Healing Through Touch by the Illinois State Guardian's Office, Ritacca said.
Beth Brilliant's 94-year-old mother, Alice, is a Chicago resident and a longtime client of Healing Through Touch. Alice always looked forward to the day her therapist would come for a visit and her time on the massage table, Brilliant said.
"She came off that table with a smile on her face," Brilliant said. "The pains that she may have been feeling that day subsided."
Brilliant praised Ritacca for her ability to find a therapist who would understand her mother's physical needs and limitations. Ritacca explains that someone who works with an elderly client must consider it a kind of calling.
"It's their preferred line of work," Ritacca said. "It takes a certain kind of person to really enjoy this business. And in the business there has to be enjoyment. There has to be a deep sense of satisfaction for helping somebody."
The therapist also must be extremely adaptable to the needs of the client, Ritacca explained. For example, some clients may want to have their massage in a chair, not on a table or in a bed. And, of course, the therapist must be able to look for developing medical conditions, such as swelling.
Three years ago, Ritacca decided to relocate to Southwest Florida. Healing Through Touch remained in Chicago and continued to employ several therapists.
But now that she's settled in Southwest Florida, she'd like to begin to bring the healing process to the local senior community.
As she has seen from experience, the resulting relationships between therapists and their clients hold endless opportunities for healing – on both sides.
"The energy transfer is something they give to each other," Ritacca said.