People living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can still respond positively to sensory experiences, including scent, according to some studies on aromatherapy and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Alzheimer’s is progressive, but it is not linear and people in the later stages of the disease can still have some pretty lucid moments,” said Beth Kallmyer, MSW, Vice President of Constituent Services at the Alzheimer’s Association. “The way that Alzheimer’s works is that it impacts different areas of the brain and it impacts memory--it doesn’t destroy brain cells uniformly.”
This partially explains why people in various stages of the disease can be responsive to sensory memory stimulation—from aromas to music.
One 2009 study that looked at the effects of aromatherapy on Alzheimer’s patients found “all patients showed significant improvement in personal orientation related to cognitive function…” and they had no side effects from the use of essential oils like rosemary, lemon, orange, and lavender. Because many people with Alzheimer’s disease also experience some agitation and restlessness, the goal of some studies using aromatherapy with Alzheimer’s patients was to calm them and not necessarily to evoke memories.
“For some folks these kinds of interventions using scents can calm them down or be a way to connect or to communicate,” Ms. Kallmyer said.
Studies looked at the different use of essential oils—sometimes with massage—and these techniques require unique approaches and have to factor in allergic reactions or other negative responses. However, as Ms. Kallmyer pointed out, scents can also be from the outdoors or foods baking in the kitchen.
Just like with all other aspects of care, Ms. Kallmyer said that caregivers need to consider the individual’s lifelong preferences when integrating aromatherapy as a tool.
“Anecdotally what I’ve heard families talk about is that it is not just any kind of scent that works, but those that can evoke a connection or a memory,” she said. “If they love apple pie, then that is going to work for them to smell an apple pie. If they grew up in the woods, they might like the scent of evergreen. It’s not like there is a uniform scent. It’s what the scent evokes and what is allows for them to do. Maybe someone who lost their ability to speak can communicate if they are clearly responding to a scent that is meaningful to them.”
This starts with reflecting on what this person liked and disliked. “Sometimes scents can be too much,” she said. “If you know that person always like scented holiday candles, then bring in a holiday candle and see how it works. With person-centered care, it always starts with that person and keeping in mind what they liked.”
Using aromatherapy might be a process of trial and error, trying some scents and eliminating what doesn’t have a positive effect, explained Ms. Kallmyer.
If families are wondering how they can integrate aromatherapy into the care of their loved one with Alzheimer’s, they can contact a care consultant at the Alzheimer’s Association at 800-272-3900 or go to www.alz.org.