Spotlight: Mary Kathleen Rose

By Corey Radman


Spotlight: Mary Kathleen RoseTouch is elemental to human life. It’s a baby’s first experience. Hugs are the first line of defense for the scraps and scrapes of childhood. Even as adults most of us thrive on pats, hugs and squeezes. But somewhere in late adulthood, people stop expecting touch. Spouses pass on, children move away and our daily dose goes unmet.

Of course, not everyone wants to be touched. Consent, even for a hug, is required and no is always a complete sentence. But for so many, there remains a gaping absence.

The Journal of Holistic Nursing reports that touch has become underused in nursing as technology has advanced.

The appropriate use of touch by nurses has the potential to significantly improve the health status of older adults … Likewise, touch can be useful for improving comfort and communication among terminally ill older adults and their loved ones.

Lisa Olds is a Unit Coordinator at HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield Counties. She says of her patients, “Many times people will come in and have had no touch for a long time. They really are touch deprived.”

This is why Lisa was completely on board while Mary Kathleen Rose, BA, CMT (Certified Massage Therapist) worked as a HospiceCare volunteer to develop and teach a system of massage that was safe for use with their delicate patients.

Lisa says she has seen Comfort Touch work miracles with patients who seemed reluctant to let go of life.

“We have a few very good volunteers who, very often, provide Comfort Touch right before those patients pass. It seems like they need help to get relaxed and comfortable enough. That light gentle touch could be the very last thing a person needs … the thing they haven’t had for years.”

Mary’s original creation, adapted from her own massage practice, came to be called Comfort Touch®. Based on shiatsu massage, acupressure and her experiences as a hospice volunteer, Comfort Touch integrates many of the principals of finger and hand pressure in accordance with Traditional Chinese Medicine, but provides special consideration for the needs of elderly or ill patients.

“It didn’t look like my regular massage practice,” says Mary discussing her early experiences as a hospice volunteer between 1989 and 1991. "I was working with people where they were in hospital beds, recliners or wheelchairs. I wasn’t going to move them [to a massage table or a floor futon like I did in my private practice]. So my patterning or body mechanics were different. Also, the angle of pressure was different.”

“Opposing pressure on fragile or painful skin is contraindicated for elderly patients,” Mary explains because the friction could cause tears or bruising. “The pressure is always into the center, perpendicular to the skin. It’s encompassing, which is calming to the nervous system.”

Comfort Touch is also different from traditional massage because it requires no lotions or oils and is given on top of clothing. “It comes to the patient at their level of need,” Mary says.

As she worked with hospice patients, Mary developed her own, unique approach. “I found that I needed to slow down and feel what the patients needed. And then notice their response.”

Mary says that slowing down is the first, second and third thing all trainees of Comfort Touch need to learn. She explains it is important to pay attention to the patient’s response and follow their lead, either their spoken request or the way they lean into or away from the touch.

“Often there is a change of breathing,” she says, “like a big relaxed sigh.”

In 1991 HospiceCare (then Boulder County Hospice), asked Mary if she could develop training to share what had been working so well for patients. She agreed, and that was how Comfort Touch was born as a formal curriculum.

Mary has worked as a Comfort Touch provider and trainer across the last 20 years. In 2011, she began pulling back her practice to just a few, established clients. Her calendar is still booked with trainings across the country; she offers training in Colorado every four to six months.

Her textbook, Comfort Touch: Massage for the Elderly and the Ill, was published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (LWW) in 2010. LWW also published a DVD by the same title in 2005. Both are available through

Principals of Comfort Touch

Mary, who is an approved continuing education provider by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, came up with an acronym that helps remind volunteers of the Comfort Touch core principles: SCRIBE.

SCRIBE stands for Slow, Comforting, Respectful, Into Center, Broad, and Encompassing.

The first three concepts remind students of the qualities they should bring to a Comfort Touch session.

  • Slow “People are used to working too hard,” Mary says. “Providers need to slow down enough to listen to their own breath and their patient’s. That quality of presence is a big one,” she nods knowingly.
  • Comforting The Latin root of the word, comfort, means to strengthen much. “Your key intention is not to fix or change, but to help a person to feel they can handle it. Just being there with a person and acknowledging their inner resources is helpful.”
  • Respectful “The opposite of respect is judgment. Some massage therapists have a tendency to find knots and make comments on them, ‘What have you been doing?’” Again, Mary returns to the Latin: “Re means ‘again,’ ‘spect’ means to see. Respect is to see again. Look beyond the first impressions and really see your patients.”

The second group of three deals with technique. They are designed with frailty in mind. Mary has simplified the shiatsu approach to make it more accessible to lay people. “It’s not necessary to be familiar with Asian body work to be a good practitioner of Comfort Touch,” she says.

  • Into Center This means the pressure with fingertips goes directly downward, perpendicular to the body, instead of across the skin’s surface. Mary writes in the journal, Massage & Bodywork, “If you are applying pressure correctly, there is no friction or pulling on the skin. This is one reason that lotions or oils are not required. If your angle of pressure is correct when you work through a client’s clothing, you will not wrinkle the fabric.”

Students of Comfort Touch are taught approximately ten different acupressure points that are effective for relaxation.

  • Broad The first movements in a session are broad and use the full hand. One or both hands press or gently squeeze an arm, shoulder muscle or foot before pressing with fingertips. As Mary’s journal article says, “This work is sedating to the nervous system, because the focus of intention and the broad, encompassing contact are felt deep in the part of the body being touched.”

  • Encompassing From the Comfort Touch website, “Let your touch surround the person's body. Be aware of the relationship between your two hands and the energetic field that exists between them. Hold the person in this space.”

Mary is aware that the term “energy” can be a loaded one in healing circles. She deflects the idea that tuning into energy requires practitioners to be attuned or anointed in any specific tradition to give Comfort Touch.

“I think warmth and pressure are available to anyone, anywhere. Healing is innate; it’s part of being human. And that’s amazing,” she smiles. She continues that she built the Comfort Touch curriculum to be used both in medical settings as well as at home by anyone who wishes to extend strength and love to others.

“There is a place [in the healing world] for all modalities. I liken it to cooking. Anybody can cook at home. That doesn’t negate the need for gourmets in restaurants. Likewise, anyone can nurture through touch. Certified massage therapists are the gourmets of the healing world.”

Spotlight: Mary Kathleen RoseMoving Forward

Last year Comfort Touch turned 20. Mary’s curriculum has been taught to thousands of healthcare professionals across the United States and Canada. She frequently delivers workshops to massage therapists, nurses, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA), hospice employees and volunteers, as well as physical and occupational therapists.

“Nurses have told me that the short, five to ten minute treatments, are especially effective in the time they have available. Just doing an arm can help a patient relax better for an IV, for instance,” she says. Mary divided up the body into smaller chunks exactly because nurses didn’t have an hour per patient to do full body work, but really wanted to do something.

Mary says that Comfort Touch is beginning to take on a life of its own. In the last year she has been developing teacher trainings so others can carry the torch.

“I am beginning to step back, which is really hard,” she says. “But I’m also looking forward to spending time on other pursuits … like drumming.” Mary loves to attend the drum circle classes in Longmont.

Lisa Olds, the HospiceCare Unit Coordinator says, “I adore Mary. She’s got the most compassionate heart. It makes sense that this program would come from someone like her. It serves an amazing purpose.”


Corey RadmanCorey Radman is a freelance writer living in Fort Collins. Her passion for story threads its way through all her work, which has been published at 5280 Magazine, Style Magazine, Northern Colorado Medical & Wellness, Get Born Magazine, and The Mom Egg. She can be contacted via her website at