Elder Journal: Complementary & Alternative Medcine for Dementia March 2003

by Paul Takayanagi
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March 18 (Tuesday 9:00 to 11:00PM EST) “Elder Journal:” Host Paul Takayanagi will host an informative discussion on the topic of “Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Persons with Dementia.” You are encouraged to read his monthly column before joining the session (not required) at http://www.ec-online.net/Knowledge/Columns/elderjournal0303.html.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Persons with Dementia

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a growing choice for many persons of all ages to find relief from the pain of chronic illnesses and other health problems.  More than 34 million Americans accessed CAM treatments in the last year.  A growing number of these persons are older people who are interested in exploring CAM to supplement and complement their conventional health treatments.  CAM practitioners in a variety of alternative modalities are also beginning to provide treatments for their older clients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease or a related dementia.  They are finding these clients can also benefit greatly from CAM health treatments.

Alzheimer’s Disease is a non-curable and progressively worsening disease that afflicts more than 4 million Americans.   Another 4 million persons in the United States are diagnosed with related dementias associated with Parkinson’s Disease, Strokes, Mild Cognitive Impairment, Lewy Body Dementia and others.  While conventional medical treatments, such as pharmaceutical products, are available widely, more CAM treatments are being offered to this population with varying results.

This month, we’ll explore three CAM modalities that have been used successfully by a variety of alternative health practitioners working with older adults diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementia.  The three modalities are massage therapy, aromatherapy and Reiki or healing touch.

Massage Therapy

Ted is a licensed Massage Therapist.   He was trained at a highly respected massage school in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He focused on reflexology (massage of the feet) and general massage techniques.  He has been working with Clara, an 84-year-old resident of a local nursing home for more than six months.  Clara has dementia associated with Parkinson’s Disease.  She is still able to have some lucid moments and able to articulate many of her needs and choices.  When offered massage therapy to help with some of the pain she was experiencing with arthritis, she readily agreed.  Her family is also affirming of her receiving massage therapy.  Ted began working with her twice a week.  Within three months she was able to articulate that she was feeling less pain with her arthritis.  Her family and the staff of the nursing home also feel that she is less demanding and more amenable to communication with others around her after a therapy session.  Ted offers massage therapy to two other residents of the nursing home on a regular basis.


Vickie is an Activities Director for an assisted living facility in San Mateo, California.  She has worked at the facility for two years.  Vickie is responsible for a specialized program for residents with dementia.   She is a certified Aromatherapist and mixes her own scents from high quality ingredients.  Twice a week, she uses aromatherapy for the group in the activities room.  The group consists of between five and eight residents who have been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment or early stage Alzheimer’s Disease.  When they enter the activities room, they are greeted with the relaxing scents of lavender and chamomile.   Vickie has experimented with a variety of scents throughout the past two years and feels that the group is much more relaxed and open to talking with each other when Aromatherapy is being used in the activities room.   She is careful not to offer it too much, however, because she says it wouldn’t be a special experience if she offered it every day.   Smell is one of the most powerful of all senses and it can also be a sense with the most powerful associative memories.  She has successfully used the scents of rose, gardenias and other flowers to facilitate reminiscence discussion groups with her residents.  Vickie also offers the advice that since smell can be compromised through the dementia process it is important to regulate the amount of scents that are being used appropriately.

Reiki or Healing Touch

Joanne is the owner of a Board and Care Home in Central California.  She cares for six residents and the majority have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Margaret is one of Joanne’s longer-term residents and has lived in the home for more than three years.  When Margaret first came to the home, she was incommunicative and displayed many challenging behaviors associated with confusion, anxiety and depression.  With Margaret’s permission and that of her family, Joanne offered a healing touch treatment known as Reiki.  Reiki practitioners focus on calmly and quietly working with clients to transfer energy through their own hands to the bodies of their clients.  Reiki is growing in popularity throughout the world.  Joanne feels that her work on a one-to-one basis has provided a structure to build confidence in her relationship with Margaret.  After a number of treatments, Margaret was less combative and more communicative with her.  Joanne offers regular Reiki treatments to maintain her connection with Margaret.  Touch is one of the senses that can provide reassurance and connection with many persons with dementia.  Gentle hand massages combined with a manicure can be used effectively with persons in the moderate and late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease with positive effects.

It’s important to note that all three of the CAM modalities discussed above are not being applied to treat Alzheimer’s Disease or related dementias directly but to provide supplementary or palliative care for the persons diagnosed with dementia.  They are primarily being used to alleviate pain, provide relief from stress or to make stronger physical and emotional connections between practitioners and persons with dementia.  All persons interested in accessing CAM treatments should consult with their physicians prior to treatments.   CAM practitioners working with persons with dementia should receive approval from the persons themselves, if possible, and their families and health care providers prior to treatment.  More research into the benefits of CAM for persons with dementia should be explored and promoted throughout the field of gerontology.  Care plans for persons with dementia could then be developed that incorporate CAM modalities more successfully with them.

Please refer to the January 2003 Elder Journal Column for additional information and resources on Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  You can also visit the web site for the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine at: www.whccamp.hhs.gov

About the Columnist:  Paul Takayanagi is on the faculty of the Gerontology Department at San Francisco State University.  He has also taught at the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; Chabot Community College; and the Graduate Theological Union.  He is also the Education Director of Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay in Berkeley, California.  He is a member of the American Society on Aging and currently is a Chairperson for their Summer Series on Aging.  He has presented nationally on “Holistic Gerontology” and other topics.  He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

March 18 (Tuesday 9:00 to 11:00PM EST) “Elder Journal:” Host Paul Takayanagi will host an informative discussion on the topic of “Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Persons with Dementia.” You are encouraged to read his monthly column before joining the session (not required) at http://www.ec-online.net/Knowledge/Columns/elderjournal0303.html.


Available from ElderCare Online™             www.ec-online.net             2003 Paul Takayanagi.