The Alzheimer’s Society reported in 2013 that 1 in 4 people living with dementia had used complementary or alternative therapies in the past year. With the possible side effects of conventional medicines well documented, and people anxious to find any effective way to treat the effects of dementia, it is easy to why complementary therapies are gaining in popularity so fast.

But are they safe? And just how effective are they?

What role can complementary therapy play in the treatment of dementia?

While the terms “complimentary” and “alternative” are often used interchangeably, they technically have quite different meanings.

“Complimentary” refers to an approach or treatment used alongside conventional medicine.

“Alternative” refers to an approach or treatment adopted in place of conventional medicine.

Current interest in complimentary forms of therapy has outpaced scientific research into the effectiveness of the differing forms of therapy, and at present there is simply not enough high quality evidence to justify abandoning proven successful drug treatments in favour of unproven and possibly ineffective therapies.

However, as an aid to conventional medicine, the potential of natural, non-invasive, complementary therapies to boost a feeling of wellbeing and enhance quality of life among people living with dementia is becoming increasingly recognised.

 Potential benefits

The aims for complementary treatments can be wide ranging.

Massage photosSome can be geared towards stimulation with such aims as:

  • Encouraging social interaction
  • Boosting cognitive function
  • Stimulating memory
  • Encouraging physical activity

Others have relaxation as their main function, with such potential benefits as:

  • Reducing disturbed and agitated behaviours
  • Promoting sleep
  • Easing physical discomfort

All therapies aim to boost mood and instil a feeling of wellbeing. The power of this should not be under-estimated. As one man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s commented, “I don’t remember what people told me but I remember how they made me feel”.

 What types of complementary therapy are available?

Complementary therapies are numerous and wide ranging in nature, but can be divided into the following areas:

  • Art, Music and Dance

Art and Music both provide useful tools in dementia care by evoking powerful responses and freeing people up from the need to find the right words. Both provide enjoyable and meaningful activities that have the ability to boost mood, increase attention span, expand social interaction and decrease feelings of anxiety and depression.

  • Botanicals, Herbal supplements and Extracts

The most common of these is Aromatherapy using essential oils extracted from plants and herbs which are either applied to the skin through massage, or inhaled by steam inhalation to stimulate the limbic system in the brain. Each essential oil has unique effects (anti-bacterial, diuretic, tranquilising…) and the effect can be hugely relaxing, aiding sleep, calming disturbed behaviours etc.

  • Exercise
  • Pets and Dolls
  • Therapeutic Multi-sensory experiences

These include therapies as wide ranging as group therapies such as Reminiscence and Validation therapies to improve cognitive function, Bright Light therapy (which benefits the circadian rhythm to improve sleep patterns, decrease wandering and agitation etc) and Acupuncture.

 How effective are these therapies?

The grandmother with a cat on a sofa The majority of medical professionals, care home staff and dementia charities, now widely support the use of complementary therapies when used alongside conventional medicine. Despite plenty of anecdotal stories of individual successes however, scientific research has not managed to keep pace with the ever-growing public interest. High quality scientific research is lacking so there is little solid evidence as yet about the effectiveness of any particular therapy.

Words of Caution

  • Everyone experiences dementia in a slightly different way so it is important to bear in mind that what works for one person, may well not work for another. A therapy that promotes happiness and increased motivation in one person can, just as easily, confuse and frustrate another.

Any therapy should be targeted at an individual’s distinct needs, and its effectiveness  based on his/her unique response.

  • Current regulation remains patchy for the different forms of complementary therapies, so be wary of possibly exaggerated benefits and successes.
  • Just because a therapy is touted as “natural” does not necessarily mean it’s safe for everyone. Some herbal and vitamin supplements or essential oils used in aromatherapy and massage can react significantly – and sometimes negatively – with medication.

Always talk to your Doctor before embarking on any form of therapy to check there are no safety concerns for you personally.

 Before embarking on any form of complimentary therapy…..bear in mind the following points:

  • Talk first to your doctor –he/she will be able to check there are no safety concerns and that any proposed therapy will not react harmfully against any other treatment you are undertaking. Most doctors are now sympathetic to the use of complementary therapies, and may be able to offer advice about good practitioners in the area or even refer you through the NHS.
  • Be prepared- before starting any therapy, find out exactly what the treatment will involve, how many visits will be required, what are the likely results  you can expect, and importantly, how much it will cost.
  • Be realistic- therapy cannot magically erase the symptoms, but may help with a particular targeted problem or simply help you relax and boost your mood.

Give it a go and keep an open mind!

 Further Reading: