How can Aromatherapy Help People with Dementia?

By E. Joy Bowles, BSc  © Dementia Care International

Aromatherapy works on two different levels of dementia, the physical and emotional.

The physical effects that are most useful in dementia are probably the sedative effects of compounds like those in Lavender oil which damp down the glutamate receptors in the brain, causing a decrease in agitation.1 Another oil, Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia), seems likely to increase cognitive function in the same way as the mainstream Alzheimer’s drugs, Exelon and Aricept.2 However, it is early days yet to say that Spanish Sage is safe for use in humans with Alzheimer’s disease as the initial work has been done on rats.

The emotional effects of the essential oils depend more on a person liking the smell for a good effect. Just think of your favourite perfume or flower smell, and feel the smile come to your lips just thinking about it! The sense of smell is non-verbal and can “get through” to the emotions when words fail.

Confusion is a major problem for people in the early stages of dementia, particularly if they have moved house or been moved into an aged care facility or hospital. Several nurses have told me that using different essential oils at different times of the day seems to help orient people in time and space. For example: using specific oils for bathing and other oils for going to bed can give people odour cues about what they are supposed to do. Even smells of cooking can trigger appetite prior to meal times. The nurturing, reassuring and calming effects of massage can be multiplied with the use of an essential oil or aroma that a person really likes.

How to choose the right oils?

An important consideration in caring for people with dementia is that although they often lose the ability to communicate verbally, if you watch their body language, they often still manage to communicate effectively. It is very important to always offer someone the essential oils to smell before using it on them. If they push the bottle away or make a wrinkly nose and turn their head away, it is likely that they don’t like the oil, or perhaps it is too strong.

If the person is still able to communicate; always ask permission and for his or her choice of oils. Let the person smell the oil or blend before using it – if they show an aversion to the smell (turn their head away, push with their hands), choose another blend.

Suggestions for different applications.
Use fresh citrus oils like Sweet Orange in the morning, and more calming woody oils like Cedarwood or Sandalwood in the afternoons, ending with Lavender at night. The oils can either be vaporised, if everyone likes it, or a couple of drops can be put onto a cotton ball and put in a top pocket or tucked in the bra to keep the aroma personal.

To help with memory in the early stages of dementia use 1-2 drops of Spanish Sage or Rosemary oil on a tissue and let the person inhale it. Repeat 2-3 times a day. Discontinue if the person appears to become more agitated, and don’t use either of these oils if the person has high blood pressure or is prone to epilepsy.

For anxiety, agitation and people who have trouble sleeping put 3-5 drops of Lavender, Sweet Marjoram, Patchouli or Sandalwood oil in a vaporiser in the bedroom half an hour before bed-time. This can help cue the body into relaxation. Alternatively, you can apply 1-2 drops of any of these oils to the pillow before bed-time, or onto the collar of night-clothes. If you have a bath tub, you can add the same number of drops of any of the oils into the bath water just before getting in, and have a relaxing soak, or you can apply the oils to a face-washer and give the whole body a lovely scrub with fragrant oils and the hot water will turn the shower cubicle into a mini-aromatherapy sauna!

To help lift depression add 3-4 drops of Bergamot, Geranium, Ylang Ylang or Jasmine oil to 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil and apply the oil on the person’s hands. Rub each hand gently holding the hands in both of yours, making small circles with your thumbs all over the back of the hands and on the palms. Alternatively use 3-5 drops of these oils in a warm bath. Add the oils to 1 teaspoon of dried milk powder first and then add to the bath. The milk acts as a dispersant. Please note! Not for internal use.

To help remind a person with dementia of happy times, choose oils that smell of things in their past. Rosemary oil, for example, can remind people of roast lamb and family dinners. Other smells like laundry powder, fresh flowers or leather polish, can also be used for reminiscence, not only essential oils.

Remember, if in doubt, consult a professional aromatherapist. They will most likely be more than willing to help formulate a blend and advise on safe use of the oils.

1. Elisabetsky E, Brum LFS and Souza DO, (1999) Anticonvulsant properties of linalool in glutamate-related seizure models, Phytomedicine, 6(2): 107-113.
2. Perry N, Houghton P, Jenner P, Keith A and Perry E, (2002) Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil inhibits cholinesterase in vivo., Phytomedicine, 9(1): 48-51.