Senior care providers face enormous pressure to keep pace with the “Aging of America.” Today, the U.S. is home to more than 50 million seniors; by 2050, that number is projected to surge to 83 million. To meet the complex needs of this fast-growing demographic, more and more senior care communities are looking for care innovations.
An increasingly popular option is aromatherapy. Recognized by The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the U.S. National Institutes of Health as a “complementary health approach,” the practice uses essential oils from plants to address health challenges and support overall wellness.
“Aromatherapy today takes a holistic perspective – focusing on body, mind, spirit, and emotions,” says Callie Whitwell, chief operating officer and founding partner at Lifetime Wellness. A leading provider of person-centered wellness, life enrichment, and recreational programs to senior living communities, Lifetime Wellness recently launched an online Aroma Works store for essential oil purchase. All products are plant-based, 100 percent natural, and long-lasting. “Visitors to the store include senior care providers, who are seeking nonpharmacological approaches to enhancing resident well-being,” Whitwell says.
“Our program uses essential oils in two ways, through inhalation with a diffuser or applied directly to the skin through a topical roll-on. We offer blends that have excellent therapeutic benefits and are also safe for sensitive skin.”
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Researchers have uncovered a close connection between memory and sense of smell, finding the brain can recognize thousands of scents – and remember the memories associated with them. Essential oils can help awaken memories. For example, cedarwood has been found to enhance memory and ease feelings of restlessness; lavender, to reduce sadness and irritability; and peppermint and rosemary, to stimulate the mind and body.
“We’ve found that residents living with memory issues have experienced numerous benefits from aromatherapy – less agitation, sounder sleep, and increased appetite,” Whitwell says.
“Hand massages using scented lotion can promote relaxation. Essential oils diffused in common areas before nightfall can soothe memory care residents who become confused and agitated as evening approaches. These oils can also be applied to cleaning cloths for wiping down furniture throughout the facility, surrounding residents with a sense of calm.”
Alleviating pain and fatigue
Essential oil massages are a key tool for relieving physical aches, from muscle stiffness to head discomfort. “We’ve found adding a few drops of essential oils to nonscented lotion for a gentle massage can help alleviate pain and ease the mind,” Whitwell says. “For example, lavender relaxes muscles, lemon refreshes, and spearmint and peppermint offer cooling relief.”
Aromatherapy can also help combat fatigue. “Spritzers apply aromas directly to fabrics, from pillowcases to residents’ clothes. Diffusers circulate invigorating aromas, such as nutmeg, ginger, and eucalyptus, into a facility’s common areas.”
Many seniors struggle at mealtimes, declining food because they’ve lost their appetite. Appetite loss is linked to several causes, from medications that reduce the sense of taste to nausea, sadness, and lack of physical activity. A groundbreaking study found that aromatic therapies can awaken the appetite of those who have lost interest in food.
“Peppermint, citrus, and ginger essential oils can help reduce nausea and stimulate taste buds,” Whitwell says. “Before mealtimes, a dab of one of these oils can be applied with a cotton swab near the nose. Another technique is to wash cloth napkins in detergent infused with essential oils. When residents put the napkin to their mouths, they smell the oil – and may feel the urge to keep eating. A hand massage with an oil-infused lotion can also reinforce the desire to eat.”
Advancing holistic care
“Through the use of aromatherapy at several senior living communities, we’ve seen many seniors improve so much that they have decreased their sleep medication or no longer need to take appetite stimulants,” Whitwell says. “Complementary therapy approaches such as aromatherapy are increasingly part of the exceptional level of care provided by forward-thinking senior care communities. These therapies can contribute greatly to promoting personal well-being, enhancing quality of care, and improving senior health outcomes.”