There are just a few small scale research studies that have explored the use of aromatherapy as treatment for some of the unpleasant symptoms of agitation and distress that some people with dementia experience. Most notably the use of melissa (lemon balm) to ease agitation and the properties of lavender to promote sleep have been explored. The findings about the effectiveness of this form of treatment have been mixed. However, as I have explained in a previous article, lack of published evidence for a particular approach does not necessarily mean that it will not be helpful in individual circumstances. As such the use of aromatherapy is worth consideration in the context of a toolbox of solution to promote the wellbeing of people with dementia.
Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts obtained from plant materials. When used in an informed way they pose little risk to health but it is important to realise that they have the potential for harm if safety precautions are not heeded. Consider the following:
- Buy oils and supplies from a reputable source to ensure that they are not adulterated with unknown or potentially harmful substances or are so harmful that their use is not recommended. In the United Kingdom, look for suppliers that are regulated by the Aromatherapy Trade Council.
- Many essential oils are very flammable. Keep them away from flames and strong heat sources.
- Do not ingest essential oils, even those derived from plants that sound familiar as cooking ingredients, unless this is on the advice of a qualified aromatherapist. Store oils safely so that they are not drunk accidentally.
- Do not apply oils to sensitive parts of the body, for example eyes, genitalia and to inside ears or to broken, infected or inflamed skin.
- If essential oils are going to be applied to the skin buy them pre -diluted or follow the supplier’s instruction for mixing them with a carrier oil. Do a patch test if there are concerns about sensitivity.
- Be aware that some oils can cause photosensitivity and may increase the risk of sun damage to skin.
- Research the properties of a particular oil that you intend to use online to explore the benefits it is purported to give and any precautions that might be needed. Use the website of an aromatherapy regulatory body or reputable essential oil retailer to do this. Seek advice from a GP, health professional or qualified aromatherapist if there are concerns that there may be interactions with existing medication.
- Use oils in well ventilated areas.
- Remember that scents have the power to evoke strong memories and can have the potential for emotional upset. Think about their use carefully in communal spaces where the individuals may have very different needs, likes and dislikes.
How Essential Oils Might Be Used
- Diffusers: Simple candle heated versions are available where a few drops of undiluted essential oil is heated by a tealight and dispersed into the air. Newer electrically powered models where diffuse the oil in steam and eliminate the risk of burns, fires and wax spillage.
- Applied to the Skin: This might include treatment from a qualified massage therapists who is trained in using essential oil as part of their treatment. Follow the link here for my article on hand massage for an accessible way of introducing touch therapy.
- On bedding or a cloth: Add just a few drops of oil to a pillow or handkerchief.
- Added to bathwater: Again just a few drops will suffice. Although the level of dilution will minimise skin irritation this should not be ruled out.
Consider seeking advice from a qualified aromatherapist about what oils might meet the needs of a particular individual and how they may be used most effectively.
Using scent does not have to be confined to being a therapeutic exercise but can be an enjoyable part and parcel of everyday life. Think about which fragrances have meaning for a particular individual. Is there more scope for using perfumed products, scented candles, fresh flowers and baking with a view to filing a home with the wonderful smell of fresh bread and cakes?