I had learned that patchouli oil can be utilized as an insect repellant, so one afternoon I put a few drops in some coconut oil and used it on my face and arms and legs before going outside. On my way to the park I stopped at Walmart for some water. I was standing in line when a middle aged man came up to me and said, “You smell good! What fragrance are you wearing? It takes me back to my hippie days.” He began to describe in vivid detail where he was in his ‘hippie days’ and his experiences. I was somewhat embarrassed that after smelling me – he was enthusiastically recounting his memories of the 1960’s and 1970’s in front of a long line of people!
The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. Those with full olfactory function may be able to just ‘think’ of smells that evoke particular memories such as the gentleman in Walmart – conjuring up recollections of a whole lifetime before. This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience.
After a smell enters the nose, it travels through the cranial nerve through the olfactory bulb, which helps the brain process smells. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system – the emotional center of the brain.
When your olfactory receptors are stimulated, they transmit impulses to your brain. This pathway is directly connected to your limbic system in the center of your brain. That’s why your reactions to smell are rarely neutral – you usually either like or dislike a smell. Smells also leave long-lasting impressions and are strongly linked to your memories. That’s why it is worth exploring how aromas may impact the brain and memory of those living with cognitive loss.
As noted in the Journal of Quality Research in Dementia, a limited number of clinical trials have concluded that aromatherapy provides a potentially effective and safe treatment for Alzheimer’s symptoms and related dementias.
While research on the effectiveness of essential oils is somewhat limited, some studies have shown aromatherapy can:
- Ease symptoms of anxiety
- Offer relief from symptoms of depression
- Improve the quality of life for people living with chronic health conditions
In addition to the therapeutic benefits of the oils themselves, sensory stimulation can decrease agitation, improve sleep and improve the overall quality of life for those living with memory loss.
In our community settings, we have experimented with 5 major essential oils. We do not apply the oil directly on the skin. It is not ingested. It is strictly used as aromatherapy, utilized through a diffuser or a few drops on a cotton ball, or in water sprayed on linens or in a basin of water with warm washcloths.
Below are the oils known to be effective for those with symptoms of dementia:
- Lavender: Lavender is thought to be calming and balance strong emotions. It has also been used to help with depression, anger and irritability, and can help in some cases of insomnia. Lavender can be directly inhaled or sprayed on linens.
- Peppermint: Peppermint is an energizer and can be used to stimulate the mind and calm nerves at the same time. Best used in the morning, peppermint oil can be inhaled directly, diffused in a room, or sprayed in the air. We fill a basin with hot water and washcloths and a few drops of peppermint in the mornings, and give the warm, scented washcloths to our elders before breakfast. It is a great start to the day!
- Rosemary: Similar to peppermint, Rosemary is an uplifting oil. It may even improve cognitive performance and mood. Rosemary has also been known to ease constipation, symptoms of depression and also reinvigorate the appetite. Rosemary oil can be directly inhaled, diffused through a room or as a spray.
- Bergamot: Bergamot can be used to relieve anxiety, agitation, mild depression, and stress. This mood elevating and calming oil can also be used to relieve insomnia. To use bergamot oil, diffuse through a room or as a spray on clothing or linens.
- Lemon Balm: While lemon oil may be among the more expensive oils, it is also one of the most studied and more effective oils. It has been shown to help calm and relax those dealing with anxiety and insomnia, improve memory and ease indigestion. Lemon oil can be inhaled directly, diffused, or as a spray on clothing or linens.
The Faculty of Nursing, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia did an 18 month study utilizing essential oils in the following ways– Bath, Inhalation, Diffusion, Massage, Spritzer. Their findings: ” The specific improvements for clients included increased alertness, self-hygiene, contentment, initiation of toileting, sleeping at night and reduced levels of agitation, withdrawal and wandering. Family carers have reported less distress, improved sleeping patterns and feelings of calm.”
We have not conducted our own studies yet. Some of us are in the process of becoming certified aromatherapists. We have anecdotal evidence that indicates aromatherapy is effective.
But I wonder – Is it effective because of the oils alone? – or could it have something to do with the intentional and empathetic manner in which the aromatherapy is introduced? Our care teams are studying and seeking solutions. They are noticing when an elder is demonstrating an unmet need, and responding by being present, eye contact, validating language, respect, and tender care.
Whether it is the aromatherapy or the intentional person-centered approach and empathetic communication – or both, the results matter. We know we are making connections. We are in relationship with elders in our care, and we are inspired by the opportunity to learn the lessons the elders are teaching us every day. And some beautiful aromas make the day happier for all of us!
About the Author: Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living , located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years experience in not-for-profit and for profit health care organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living.