A Q&A with Nicolle Mitchell,
Holistic Massage Practitioner and Trainer and Creator of Massaging Persons Living with Dementia CPD course.
Tell us a bit of background about yourself… (Why and how did you get into the industry? What did you do before?)
I remember in the 90s when I was working in residential care, looking after children and young people, I became increasingly interested in therapy. I was already helping children work through some of their hurt with play therapy and was interested in the healing properties of herbs which I used at home. It was only natural that aromatherapy resonated with me, although it wasn’t until I moved to Cornwall in the late 90s that I qualified and started my own massage and aromatherapy practice.
I blame mum for opening the door for me working with people living with dementia. She worked in accounts in a local nursing home and thought my services would be beneficial for some of the residents there. She put me in touch with the matron & we worked out a plan to visit some of the residents most in need of massage & nurturing touch. So yes, I’d definitely say it was all mum’s fault!
I searched for courses supporting persons living with dementia to inform my practice but found nothing in the complementary health field. I looked for literature and read widely on the subject wanting to support my clients as best I could. I also went on Penny Garners training course which was an inspiring, fun day which gave me confidence in how to start adapting my approach. I was learning so much on the subject of dementia, that it made sense to bring it all together and develop my own training supported hugely by the FHT. A year after I launched the course now known as “Massaging Persons Living with Dementia” I was awarded the FHT Excellence in Practice Award for Innovation and have received further recognition for my work since.
Sadly, a huge twist of irony meant mum developed dementia at the time I was branching out and starting to facilitate my course. However, everything I learned became increasingly valuable in our relationship and mum was always generous in sharing her knowledge and experience to inform my practice and teaching. She lives with advanced dementia now, but still teaches me, I just have to listen.
Are there any challenges you have had to overcome as a therapist? How have you overcome these?
I think one of the biggest challenges I had to face as a therapist was seeing people who struggled with “usual” communication methods being treated as less than. Often people would talk about a person living with dementia as if they were not in the room, or not include them in the care being given to them. They would often be dismissed as aggressive or “cut-off” and therefore to be avoided or ignored. Not only that but they were often further disabled from creating natural, meaningful, incidental connections by being seated in such a way as to isolate them even more.
This is why consent is such a big deal to me. I feel that if I was losing control of aspects of my ability I would want to be enabled and be given genuine choice about my life decisions. I would want to be included in processes involving me every step of the way.
I realised that part of my role as a therapist was to advocate for vulnerable people. There have been numerous times I have made myself unpopular to the point of losing business when confronting what I have seen as a compromise to a person’s rights or dignity. Learning about the law and how it supports people with reduced or fluctuating mental capacity has been helpful in challenging poor practice and has become a key part of the course I teach. It’s important to keep having conversations about how we enable people to retain agency in their lives when their brains or bodies fail them and to include them in that conversation.
What interests you outside of work? (How do you normally spend your spare time?)
Outside of work I love spending time up our land developing a food forest garden. We are 5 years into our young project and it has been an emotional sanctuary during the pandemic as well as a focus on doing something productive. We hope to grow more food using permaculture principles, “Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share”.
We mix mix layers of fruit trees, shrubs and perennial veg so that in the future we can reap the rewards of our hard work to supplement our diet in a world where food security and food miles is a real concern.
Medicinal herbs and plants with practical uses are also welcome along with the rogue volunteers which nature sends along. Already the biodiversity of the land has increased with a rise in the numbers of moths, such as the cinnabar moth, butterflies, newts, frogs and toads and birds which have been a constant source of joy for me. I’ve been utterly entranced by “charms” of finches which now flurry from the trees and hedges dotted around the field.
Our polytunnel has been a gamechanger too meaning that we have an extended growing season and produced an abundance of salad and greens to share all year round.
What is your seminar about and what can viewers expect to come away with?
I aim for people attending my seminar to come away more confident about asking permission to treat a person lacking capacity, as a lack of confidence may create a barrier to people obtaining such a service. We will explore what may be involved in the process and how to we can look for signs of consent or non-verbal refusal. We will look at the main points of the Mental Capacity Act and the overarching principle to decide whether a person has capacity and what that means in practical terms. I will also give guidance on where to go if you have safeguarding concerns that can’t be addressed solely by yourself.
What is it about your topic that appeals to you and why is it useful for therapists?
When people start to lose capacity for whatever reason, the anguish that is felt as autonomy is lost can be further disabling. The stress that is involved can shut down our brains into survival mode and disable a person yet further.
I see therapy not so much as healing and fixing people, but more as enabling people to heal, process and make choices for themselves. I feel that my role as a holistic therapist is to offer genuine choice and sometimes that includes a role of advocacy.
Often therapists are well placed to observe, challenge and make changes. If we are professional in our practice and approach, if we understand our rights as well as the rights of our clients, we can confidently make a stand for them when needed, challenge things that don’t feel right and know where we can look to for support within the system. We can be part of the positive changes for overall integrative health and social care by acting on our knowledge.
What would be your one piece of advice for therapists wanting to grow and develop their therapy practice?
Nurture something that lights a fire inside you. Your passion will be infectious & you will never tire of learning about it, which will make it easier for you to keep abreast of progress and learning in your field as well as motivate you through the drudge of inevitable admin.
What do you consider to be the most important traits for a therapist to have?
There are so many qualities a therapist needs, but acceptance of a person and their story is a good place to start, to meet a person where they are in that moment. This alongside appropriate curiousity & empathy are vital too … and don’t worry if all this is new to you or you struggle with these qualities, you simply need to focus on what you need to develop and put your time and energy developing those aspects of yourself much like you would any muscle. Also, we need to be truly present, listening deeply with our ears, eyes, hands and hearts.
Finally, we need to walk our talk. By that I mean attending to our own self-care, self-empathy and self-compassion. We need to look after ourselves so when we offer advice and support it comes from a place of lived-in knowing. I always ask people attending my course if they have therapy themselves and if not, that they are curious with themselves as to why. Their answer may be the difference as to whether someone would consider booking in with them or not, especially for longer term courses of treatment. Clients often ask me, “who does your massage?” and I think they feel reassured that I benefit from a dose of my own medicine.