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In the Event of Your Death?

by Su Fox(more info)

listed in massage, originally published in issue 162 - September 2009

This article was prompted by seeing the news item about Evelyn Blackburn, who at 98 is Britain's oldest massage therapist. She has been massaging for sixty years, and has just had her license  renewed by Harrow Council. She is quoted as saying "I have massaged thousands of people over the years – from mothers and grandmothers to builders and scientists. I still maintain the best treatment is a pair of hands. I don't think anything can replace massage. I have used lots of therapies and machines, but nothing is quite as effective."

Relating to Clients

What a wonderful story! How I agree with her! And still working at 98! Followed by a twinge at recognizing my ageism and the implicit assumption that by that age most people would be incapacitated if not a bit senile. And when I thank the thought police for their assistance, I can see that Mrs Blackburn deserves a standing ovation from the massage community.

And........at that age we can assume that she may not have that many years left, either as a massage practitioner, or on this planet. What will happen to her clients if she were to die suddenly? Has she thought about this eventuality? Have you? We are not a culture that finds the idea of death easy. Regular massage reduces stress levels, and stress is a major factor in physical and psychological ageing. Some branches of massage, such as facial rejuvenation and beauty therapy massage focus on helping clients look younger. Death has no place in the massage world – unless we are working in hospice care or with a client group with life threatening illness. And even then, it's the possibility of the client's death, not ours, that may be present in the room.

What would happen to your clients were you to die suddenly? Or if you were involved in a car accident, seriously injured with no prognosis as to when, if ever, you'd recover? When someone dies intestate, the family is left with the messy task of sorting out the person's possessions and finances. Making a will is an act of care and responsibility. 

These days the obligations we have concerning the initial phase of the professional relationship are clear. We take care of ourselves and our clients, and meet legal, ethical and professional requirements when we state how much we charge, the length of a session, explain what massage can and can't do, listen to our client's needs and make a treatment plan that meets those needs. We know that we need informed consent from the client, and that we have a duty to inform the client if there's an alternative treatment that might be more effective. We know how to set goals and make a treatment plan, and how to assess success and failure. We know about keeping confidential client notes safe and unidentifiable.

I think there's another piece of  the complex ethical / professional / contractual picture that rarely gets mentioned in the massage – or any – complementary therapy profession, and that relates to arrangements in the event of your death, or an event that renders you incapable of working. Reluctant as we are to think about such things, it does make good sense to put procedures in place to take care of your clients should the worst happen to you.

Some questions to consider when planning for your death:
  1. Who do you want to be your professional executor? That is, the person who takes responsibility for contacting, as soon as possible, your current clients to tell them the news. A family member may be willing to take on this role, but will also be dealing with his/her own responses and may not have the emotional distance to communicate professionally. If you work in the NHS or in a clinic or health centre, an administrator or centre manager may automatically take this  role. But if you work in private practice, you may want to have an arrangement, perhaps reciprocal, with a colleague. If you have a locum who covers your practice while you are on holiday, it makes sense to ask that person, because he / she will be known to some of your clients.
  2. What information do you want to be offered to your clients? Details of a bereavement counselling service? Another practitioner who could see them in your place? Do you want them told about funeral arrangements? (Think of your family).
  3. What will happen to your client records in the event of your death?
  4. If you work with client groups who are emotionally fragile and could be greatly disturbed by the news, is there someone who could offer immediate support?

Client Contact Details

The person chosen as your professional executor must have an up to date list of the people on your books, so that she can contact them as soon as possible to inform them. I know of one person who turned up for her massage appointment at a clinic and was knocking on the door for about five minutes, before it was answered and she was told "Oh didn't you know? X died two weeks ago"? The lack of sensitivity and inadequate communication left the person in question not only shocked and upset, but angry. Would you want that to happen to your clients?

Further Information

http://news.uk.msn.com/odd-news/article.aspx?cp-documentid=16274333 Wednesday 22 April 2009.
Some of this material is from:
Fox Su. Relating to Clients. The Therapeutic Relationship for Complementary Therapists. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2008. Available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and Amazon.

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About Su Fox

Su Fox BSc PGCE UKCP Reg MTI Reg CSTA Reg has worked as a complementary therapist and psychotherapist since 1988. For over twenty years she taught massage and related skills in day care centres for the elderly, people with learning difficulties, and mental health issues as well as professional massage qualifications at Hackney Community College. She was director and chair of The Massage Training Institute between  1991 – 2000 and during that time co-authored, with Darien Pritchard, Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology for Massage and authored The Massage Therapist's Pocketbook of Pathology, which has just been revised and reissued as The Massage Therapist’s Pocketbook of Pathology  published by Lotus Publishing.

During this time she was also running a successful private practice in psychotherapy at The Burma Road Practice in North London, focusing particularly on trauma work. She is a trained EMDR practitioner. Su has always believed that the talking therapies need to address the body, and that alternative therapies often failed to consider mental and emotional health, and this led her to write Relating to Clients. The Therapeutic Relationship for Complementary Therapists, published in 2009. In 1993 she added craniosacral therapy to her qualifications and has been a regular contributor to Fulcrum, the journal for the Craniosacral Therapy Association, including a series entitled ‘In The Supervisor’s Chair’. She currently serves on the supervision committee for the Association.

Her current interests are spirituality and its contribution to well being, and the psychology of the ageing process and end of life issues. Su can be contacted via sufox56@gmail.com   www.burmardpractice.co.uk/therapist-counsellor-london-n16/13-su-fox-therapist-n16

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