Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy that is used to promote wellbeing through scent. We take a look at how it might help people with dementia.

What is aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is an ancient practice that uses scented essential oils from plants, flowers, herbs and trees to improve mental and physical health.

It works by stimulating the olfactory receptors – the cells responsible for our sense of smell – that in turn stimulate the parts of the brain that relate to our wellbeing.

For example, lavender oil is considered to promote sleep; lemon balm, when used as a lotion, is thought to induce feelings of calm; and eucalyptus oil is good for cold symptoms.

The oils can be added to baths, sprinkled on pillowcases and tissues, warmed in an oil burner or massaged into the skin, combined with a ‘carrier oil’ like grapeseed or almond oil.

Aromatherapy and dementia

Aromatherapy is considered to have health benefits including:

  • improving sleep
  • relieving stress
  • clearing sinuses
  • managing pain and soothing sore joints

Some small studies have been conducted into aromatherapy and dementia. They have shown some encouraging results.

For example, there is some evidence that lavender, bergamot and lemon balm may all help to:

  • create a sense of calm
  • reduce aggression and agitation (including pacing)
  • increase the length of the person’s sleep

More research is needed into these areas – and like other complementary therapies, aromatherapy is not a replacement for medical treatment.

It should only be used if it appears to bring some pleasure or calm to the person being treated.

Practical tips for using aromatherapy with a person with dementia
  • A personalised approach for the person with dementia is vital – for example, if you are considering giving them a massage, think about whether they enjoy being touched
  • Talk to the person and their family to find out if they have used and enjoyed aromatherapy in the past
  • Buy essential oils from a reputable health shop and don’t be afraid to ask for advice on choosing suitable oils
  • Undiluted essential oils can be irritating to skin so be sure to read the label to make sure the oil is suitable for your purpose
  • Always tell the person what you are about to do, and ask their permission (if they are able to give it)
  • Try putting a drop or two of essential oil on a tissue and giving it to the person to see how they react to the smell before embarking on any further aromatherapy
  • Oils with calming properties may be best used in the evening, shortly before bed
  • Don’t experiment with using different oils together – choose one that is recommended for the outcome you hope for, and stick with that
  • The best results may come from regular use, so if the person enjoys the treatment, consider doing it every day
Things to be aware of
  • Aromatherapy oils are potent and may cause a headache, which a person with dementia might not be able to communicate to you
  • The smells may trigger memories that the person finds confusing or upsetting, so watch their behaviour closely for any signs of distress
  • Some oils, such as thyme oil, have a stimulating effect which could increase agitation
  • Essential oils may not be suitable if the person has eczema, psoriasis, allergies, cuts or bruises or delicate skin
  • Practise aromatherapy in a well-ventilated area
  • Discontinue aromatherapy immediately if a rash appears
Sources of support

For advice on complementary therapies or any other aspect of dementia, you can phone our Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline free on 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-5pm, every day except 25th December) or email helpline@dementiauk.org.

If you prefer, you can pre-book a phone or video call appointment with an Admiral Nurse at dementiauk.org/get-support/closer-to-home/.

Dementia UK resources:

Coping with distress
dementiauk.org/get-support/understanding-changes-in-behaviour/coping-with-distress/

Dealing with restlessness
dementiauk.org/get-support/understanding-changes-in-behaviour/dealing-with-restlessness/

Good habits for bedtime
dementiauk.org/get-support/maintaining-health-in-dementia/good-habits-for-bedtime/

Managing anxiety and depression in a person with dementia
dementiauk.org/get-support/maintaining-health-in-dementia/managing-anxiety-and-depression-in-a-person-living-with-dementia/

Video on calming techniques

dementiauk.org/maintaining-health-in-dementia-videos

Other resources:

NHS information on complementary and alternative therapies
nhs.uk/conditions/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/

Complementary Therapies Association
ctha.com

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Publication date: December 2020
Review date: December 2022