Spa BUSINESS: Wisdom of the Ages

With training and accommodation, day spas can win over some of today’s most appreciative and loyal clients: seniors.

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The senior demographic is growing, and spa operators and others in the field have taken notice. With people living longer, working longer and encountering more physical and emotional challenges along the way, there’s no denying the supply-and-demand potential of the relationship between seniors and spas. While spa professionals note the important risk factors that must be considered when serving older clients, they also recognize that this booming population can represent a very hungry portion of the market.

“The benefits of massage for older people are equally as important as those for athletes—it stimulates circulation, releases endorphins and keeps their range of motion intact,” says Sharon Puszko, owner and director of the Daybreak Geriatric Massage Institute, based in Indianapolis. Puszko has worked in the field for 20 years and advocates for the advancement of older guests who may find lasting value in frequenting a day spa. “The fact that many are widowed, with fewer family members around, makes healing touch that much more crucial,” she says.

There are certain misconceptions about the 50-plus set. For instance, some people think that they’re simply too old and/or sick to be able to participate in spa activities, a theory with which Puszko strongly disagrees. “I tell my students that age is not an illness, it’s a process,” she says. Working with the process, instead of against it, is the key.

A Mature Approach

From a business perspective, nurturing the older spa client makes sense. “The number of seniors is growing so much; they can be some of the most consistent in attendance once they start visiting day spas,” Puszko points out. “If I were a spa director, I would definitely offer senior discounts at a slower time of the day or week. Of course they all need to be medically cleared before receiving services—there are many conditions that would be contraindicated for certain treatments.”

Experts readily agree that caution is paramount when dealing with an older client. “If we can mobilize massage therapists to become more familiar with treating this age group, everyone wins,” says Niamh van Meines, R.N., dean of nursing at New York’s Swedish Institute. Van Meines has lectured on the subject of seniors in spas, in the hope that spa directors and students of massage become familiar and, ultimately, comfortable with older clients, who are often challenged by physical concerns such as arthritis, heart issues or cancer. “You’re rarely going to find an elderly person without some health condition,” van Meines reminds, so spa owners and directors must be ready to take this challenge seriously.

When clients of any age come in for treatment at YOUphoria Day Spa & Salon in Belton, Texas, the staff collects as much information as possible on its intake form. “If we don’t know exactly what a client’s health issues are, we need to verify not only what is bothering that person on that day, but what continuing condition he or she might have,” says Deann Jackson, spa manager and massage therapist. “Most of our discussion before a treatment pertains to determining whether there’s a diabetic condition, whether the client has a pump and whether we need to avoid certain areas.” With some conditions, like bone injuries or cancer, the spa requires a doctor’s note before the client can undergo a massage.

Hillary Marcus, spa manager at Spa NiVa, with three locations in Tucson, Arizona, is accustomed to seeing senior clients come in for everything from waxing to massage. She ensures that an intake evaluation is completed before each service is provided, regardless of how often a client might have visited previously. “We know that some nail treatments might be too hot, and so we are extremely careful with our nail services, especially if diabetes is present,” Marcus says. The spa also asks for specific records from doctors, physical therapists or other caregivers to ensure that proper treatment is performed. Marcus says that 40% of Spa NiVa’s client base is 55-plus and many are well versed in the latest services and products.

JoAnne DeRoo, spa director of the Blue Giraffe Spa and Salon in Ashland, Oregon, cites the importance of advance communication when serving older clients. “Whether the client is in a wheelchair, has a walker, is vision- or hearing-impaired or even needs help dressing or undressing—we understand that the more we know about the client beforehand, the better it is all around,” DeRoo says. Before treatments begin, therapists chat discreetly with their older guests about what to expect from the massage or treatment, and to determine how to best adapt to that client’s needs. “We’re not a one-size-fits-all type of spa,” DeRoo says. “We treat our clients as individuals and we work around their needs.”

At the most basic level, practical adjustments may be necessary. Spas may need to make it easier for this age group to access their facilities, and this may include everything from creating more space in passageways to accommodate wheelchairs, to laying down slip-proof surfaces in high-risk areas such as locker rooms. YOUphoria’s Jackson also employs less sweeping but nonetheless crucial measures: Should someone require help getting on or off a treatment table, she provides a step stool. If a guest would rather not completely disrobe, this is accepted without question. And clients who wear hearing aids may decide for themselves whether or not to remove them. It’s all about the comfort of the client, Jackson says.

Bodywork Strategies

“I’ve given lots of talks about the benefits of massage for those who are older, with or without illness,” says van Meines. “From the physical to the psychological, the older population receives tremendous benefits from touch.” Among those benefits are increased blood flow, stress reduction and a sense of comfort.
The key to providing such benefits, however, lies in being aware of how bodywork treatments need to be modified for the older client’s safety and well-being. “These clients are often more frail and need to be massaged in a gentle way so as to avoid injury,” says van Meines. “If someone has arthritis, the therapist might want to focus gently on muscles and try to reduce tightness of the ligaments.”

Even when joint or musculoskeletal problems are not an issue, modification is necessary. As Puszko points out, thinning skin is a common denominator in the older client, making vigorous modalities and techniques unwise. “We teach a specific way to massage that stimulates the circulation without relying on the typical, broad strokes,” she explains. “Some of our older clients have very fragile skin and it is essential that the therapist is trained in how to protect it.”

This is where intake and observance become crucial on the therapist’s end. Some elderly clients are extremely health-conscious and take superb care of their bodies. These clients may be able to receive massage treatment similar to those given to healthy 40-year-olds. But at the end of the day, education is crucial to help all therapists understand the wide-ranging limitations and wellness goals unique to older clients.

Therapist education is an ongoing effort at The Lane Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “We continue with education throughout the year, with classes about how to palpate the skin,” says owner and president Marcia Lane. “We also provide ongoing training for two specific treatments: medical massage and advanced body work. I stress that we have to be very careful with older clients because their skin is so thin.”

Senior Outreach

Blue Giraffe secures senior clients by marketing to retirement homes to entice newcomers and maintain regular guests. And the family-owned Spa NiVa, which has been treating local residents and the seasonal “snowbird” population for generations, has recently seen an uptick in the seniors demographic, says owner and president Renee Hobeich.

“We do a lot of services for our snowbirds; they are very health-conscious and want to feel as well as possible,” Hobeich says. One Spa NiVa location is located near a cancer center and many patients receiving treatment stop at the spa afterward for some down time.

Many spas that have recognized the worth of older clients are implementing creative ways to reach them. Jackson sees many seniors when she takes team members to senior expos, where she often gives demonstrations. “We do two- or three-minute massages at the expo, although we never pressure anyone to try it,” she says.

Anne Fisher’s Spa-Go’s Luxury Mobile Day Spa in Los Angeles brings its services to customers’ homes or other locations. Fisher started the mobile concept in 2005 and she now visits 10 seniors per week to perform massages. Spa-Go’s also visits hospitals to reach clients who typically request nail care. (If the smell of chemicals is not tolerated, Fisher turns to an odor-free product, and if use of chemical-based products is not permitted in the hospital, “We offer the guest a nice foot massage instead,” she says.)

With mobile-style outreach come the expected accommodation requirements. If a Spa-Go’s client is wheelchair-bound, the pedi bowl is brought to the chair and the treatment is done with the comfort of the guest prioritzed. Therapists ask about blood-thinning medication and make any necessary adjustments accordingly. Fisher says that all clients are hydrated before and after treatments to prevent fainting spells.

In 2012, the oldest of the baby boomers turned 66. The youngest of that huge demographic will hit 66 in 2030. And between those two extremes lie 76 million Americans with increasing aches and pains and stresses who can be helped by the sort of care afforded by the spa industry. Perhaps there is no better time for day spas to welcome all of those potential clients with open—and healing—arms.

Contraindications

Some treatments are not appropriate for guests who have certain conditions. It’s always wise to get a doctor’s clearance before beginning treatment, particularly in the face of the following conditions:
• Cancer
• Cardiovascular conditions, including high or low blood pressure
• Swollen or painful lymph nodes
• Undiagnosed skin rash or thrombosis
• New injury of any kind
• Open sores
• Arthritis (osteo- or rheumatoid)
• Diabetes, particularly if the client is experiencing foot problems

Naomi Serviss is a New York City-based freelance writer.


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