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Reflexology - Caring for Older People

by Lynne Booth(more info)

listed in reflexology, originally published in issue 173 - August 2010


Reflexology is increasingly being used in residential care facilities and among many fit older clients who want to maintain their health throughout retirement. There is no doubt that the reality of the silver tsunami of older people, i.e. the baby boomers following the Second World War, presents a considerable challenge that must be confronted not just by government, but by all of society. For the very first time in history, the demographic landscape has changed, and there are now more people in the UK who are aged over 65 than under 16. The International Longevity Centre in New York originally referred to the phenomenon of the ageing population as the "longevity revolution" - a momentous change akin to other milestones in human history which have shaped society, such as the industrial revolution.

Older resident receiving Hand Reflexology
Older resident receiving Hand Reflexology

Reflexology is a particularly suitable modality for older people as it helps circulation, normalizes bodily functions and can aid detoxification. No outer clothing, except footwear, need be removed, and the techniques can be easily applied in a sitting or reclining position and in many different locations: in bed, in wheelchairs or couches and simple self-help hand exercises can also be taught to be used anywhere.

With reflexology, the hands and feet are gently stimulated to trigger a self-healing response in specific parts of the body. It is important to register that the process of ageing does not always have to be a negative decline and that the ageing body still has an immense capacity for regeneration and healing given the right impetus. I have run a reflexology clinic for over 16 years at the St Monica Trust in Bristol, where innovative care is provide for all levels of health issues in older people, from sheltered housing to dementia facilities and 24 hour nursing care.

The aim of introducing reflexology to the Trust's programme of facilities, one of the largest in the UK, was to help chronically sick older people recover a certain degree of health through hand and foot reflexology and their own self-help applications on their hands. Many residents have multiple pathologies, take a number of medications and therefore welcome complementary therapies as a means of regaining some measure of health without potential side effects. It is also empowering to show a person simple self-help reflexology on their hands that they can apply at any time to help ease specific arthritic pain in their shoulder, for example, rub their left palm to ease indigestion or help to bring about deep relaxing sleep at night with a hand rocking technique I have devised.

The advent of improved public health, better medical care and beneficial changes in diet and nutrition has served to limit mortality in both early and later life. Clear evidence is emerging to indicate that the longer the life expectancy, the longer the health life expectancy, but paradoxically, it appears that the period of frailty towards the end of life is also increasing. A Reflexologist will aim to help support an older person to the maximum of their potential through what could be, at worst, an extended life of ill health. In the South west of England where I practise, the total number of people of 65 and over in the South West is projected to rise from 994,700 to over 1,427,600, an increase of 44% between 2008 to 2025. In some areas there is an expectation that the number of people with dementia will rise between 2008 -2025 by 50%. The rise in provision of complementary therapy within care facilities, as well as to the general public, indicates the increasing need to find ways of preserving quality of life for many who may now expect up to live through 35 years of retirement.

Benefits of Reflexology in the Care of Older People

Touch is a potent force in nearly all therapies, and for some isolated or lonely older people, the gentle relaxing sensation that reflexology achieves is the one time they can be treated holistically as the whole body is treated each time and all ailments, large or small, can be addressed. Emotional issues often surface due to the treatment itself, relaxing the person or because the client knows their confidentiality is respected.

Soon after qualifying, in the early 1990s, I worked as a Reflexologist in a long-term medical unit in a Bristol hospital for the older mentally disabled patients, many whom had a mental age of 1 and 5 years. It was often uncomfortable or inappropriate to work their feet, and many who could not verbally communicate, would become calmer when their hands were worked. Examples of a positive response to hand reflexology included a bed-ridden woman with a mental age of 3 years who began humming a tune and smiling when her hands were worked and another, who crouched all day with her arms and legs in a twisted pose, would only straighten and splay her limbs during a hand reflexology session and these effects of reflexology would last for several hours. On another occasion, the heart reflexes on a patient's hands were so sensitive that I alerted the medical staff who ran tests, and diagnosed an angina attack and the early stages of heart failure.

These experiences at the hospital were formative in my development of Vertical Reflex Therapy (VRT) for the hands. The term Vertical Reflexology is also used to describe the method where the dorsal reflexes on the hands and feet are briefly worked when the hands and feet are weight-bearing. This is obviously not so relaxing for the practitioner or client, but it is compensated by the fact that VRT is applied in this position for a maximum of five minutes only. Most of the VRT techniques can also be used on the passive hands which enhance a treatment but is not so powerful as in the weight-bearing mode. The weight-bearing hands can easily be worked by the therapist or client for a few minutes, and many older residents have commented that with VRT, they can feel warmth and/or their body adjusting as they are being treated.

Simple self-help techniques can be taught so that the client can work, for example, the bowel reflexes on the palm of the hand to ease constipation, or to rub some reflexes below the little finger to ease inflammation in the shoulder. Medication can sometimes be reduced by a GP following a course of reflexology that has helped the symptoms to ease naturally. I run Sleep Seminars at the St Monica Trust and teach residents a technique called Diaphragm Rocking on their hands to help them get to sleep or return to sleep. Two residents recently told me that this has helped to "buy them more time" in the day .i.e. they sleep better at night, are therefore not so tired in the day which has consequently transformed their afternoons from dozing into time for creative activity.

It is often interesting to see a frail new resident come into the St Monica Trust nursing home facility and begin to recover and improve in health and general mobility once they do not have to struggle to look after themselves. It is important to register that the process of ageing does not always have to be a negative decline, and that the body still has many resources to implement some regeneration, giving a multi-faceted approach to their nursing care.


1. Booth, Lynne. Vertical Reflexology for Hands. Piatkus Books, London. ISBN: 0-7499-2319-9. 2003.


2. Putting Older People First in the South West: A regional housing market assessment, published November 2008.
3. St Monica St Monica Trust Annual Review.  2008-9.
4. International Longevity Centre, USA  


  1. Darlene Folkard said..

    Very enlightening article, especially on the VRT technique. I am looking forward to trying this form.
    Thank you.

  2. Rebecca Tyler said..

    I am in the process of starting a reflexology course and further to this plan to train in working with the elderly and hopefully palliative care.

    This article has been fabulous for me.

    Thank you

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About Lynne Booth

Lynne Booth BA (Hons) BRCP IIR ART (regd) Hons HMAR began studying reflexology for over 22 years and went on to train with the International Institute of Reflexology (Original Ingham Method). She has a private practice and also runs a reflexology clinic at a 400-resident St Monica Trust in Bristol as well as a clinic for professional Championship footballers. The research, development of VRT and the small medical study were conducted at the Trust in the early to mid-1990s. She frequently presents VRT at conferences internationally and Lynne and VRT Appointed Tutors have taught VRT courses in the UK and internationally to over 8000 qualified reflexologists. Lynne is the resident reflexology columnist for Positive Health PH Online Journal ( ). In 1998 Lynne was awarded an ART (Advanced Reflexology Techniques) fellowship for services to reflexology and in 2008 The Association of Reflexologists (AoR) also gave her an Honorary Fellowship. In 2011 the respected Institute for Complementary and Natural Medicine gave Lynne the prestigious Highly Commended ICNM award for Outstanding Contribution to Complementary Medicine.  Her best-selling book Vertical Reflexology was published by Piatkus Books in September 2000 and Vertical Reflexology for Hands was published in 2002. The highly acclaimed Vertical Reflexology DVD was produced in 2008. For more information on VRT, practitioner courses or the nearest available VRT practitioner contact Booth VRT on Tel: +44 (0)117 962 6746;

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