Aromatherapy uses essential oils and plant extracts either applied in a lotion, inhaled directly or through a diffuser, or taken in a capsule, food or tea to improve mental and physical health.  Although essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and scientific research on their effectiveness is limited, some studies have shown that aromatherapy can improve the quality of life for people with dementia. For example, 28 patients with Alzheimer’s disease showed improved cognitive function after four weeks of aromatherapy consisting of rosemary and lemon essential oils in the morning, and lavender and orange in the evening. There were no adverse side effects noted.[1]

Other intriguing studies have shown that lavender aromatherapy hand massage decreased aggressive behavior of elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Essential oils thought to have an uplifting effect on the body, stimulating appetite, mood and energy levels include peppermint, rosemary, jasmine, lemongrass, and grapefruit. Essential oils with calming effects include lavender, rose, geranium, lemon balm, sandalwood, and Ylang-Ylang.

Lavender in particular has a long history of medicinal use. Animal and human studies suggest that lavender oil has mood stabilizing and sedative properties and may be an effective treatment for several neurological disorders.[2] Diluted lavender oil applied to the skin can relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and help people who have sleep disorders fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. Ylang-Ylang oil can also facilitate a better night’s sleep.

While there is a great deal of information on essential oils, finding the “right” blends for a loved one with dementia need not be overly complicated. Try out aromas that your loved one enjoys, and which are known to have stimulating or calming effects. However as with any alternative therapy or supplement, it is important to consult with the individual’s physician first to ensure that oils will not have negative interactions with any medications.

The beneficial effects of essential oils can help caregivers as well. Caregiving can be emotionally and physically demanding. Experimenting with different aromatherapies can be fun and relaxing, and ease everyday stresses.