By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


"Clinical" Aromatherapy?

Clinical aromatherapy is the controlled use of essential oils for therapeutic outcomes. Holistic symptom management in geriatric care, advanced illness, and dementia care is an ever-increasing focus for hospitals and long-term care facilities as the population continues to age.

There is a history of empirical evidence supporting the use of aromatherapy as an adjunctive therapy. Aromatherapy has also been mentioned in dementia care as a preventive first line treatment, as an environmental intervention/behavioral modification, and to address symptoms such as sundowning, memory loss, and sleep problems.

Aromatherapy involves the chemistry of essential oils that provide therapeutic properties. Essential oils are highly concentrated and used in small quantities. It is possible for the same essential oil to be both relaxing and used to soothe pain and promote sleep, thus giving essential oils an increased value in addressing various health care issues.

Essential oils are found in a wide range of aromatic plants, though not all plants. Often essential oils can be found in only one part of a plant, such as the flowers of roses or the leaves of rosemary. Essential oils can be distilled from fruits, stems, seeds, bark, wood, peels, and berries, as well as aromatic flowers and leaves.

The field of aromatherapy is expanding and ranges from using the essential oils to aid in wound healing to using them as behavior modifiers in dementia care. Aromatherapy goals can include reducing stress, stimulating the immune system, promoting healing, and reducing disease symptoms.

However, the notion of implementing aromatherapy in clinical sites is fraught with barriers. Some of those barriers include inadequate staff education, safety issues, aromatherapy delivery methods, developing aromatherapy policies, procedures, and protocols, as well as payment and/or funding of these types of complementary therapies within clinical settings.

Aromatherapy is usually administered through topical and inhalation applications. The essential oil scents travel through the nose and impact the body by activating receptor sites in the brain. Although the sense of smell diminishes as we age, aromatic plant essential oils can still have profound effects. For example, a particular aroma may bring back to mind memories of events and feelings locked away for many decades. The limbic effects of essential oils can be readily used to defuse anxiety, increase appetite, aid in sleep, and provide a tranquil calmness for all of us as we face not only the stress but the uncertainties of growing older.

Clinical aromatherapy is an oftentimes misunderstood adjunct to conventional medical treatment. Aromatherapy research is expanding but larger and more rigorous studies are needed. It is an interesting time for health care facilities to explore the potential benefits of aromatherapy not only for patients, but for caregivers as well as staff.

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Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....