How useful are complimentary therapies in the treatment of dementia?

How useful are complimentary therapies in the treatment of dementia?

The Alzheimer’s Society reported in 2013 that 1 in 4 individuals coping with dementia had made use of complimentary or alternative therapies in the previous year. With the possible side effects of conventional medications well documented, and individuals wanting to find any effective method to deal with the results of their dementia, it is easy to why complimentary therapies are gaining in popularity so quickly.
But are they safe? And just how effective can they possibly be?

Exactly what role can complementary therapy play in the treatment of dementia?

While the terms “complimentary” and “alternative” are often used interchangeably when referring to therapy, they technically have quite different meanings.
“Complimentary” refers to a technique or treatment utilized alongside conventional medicine.
“Alternative” refers to an approach or treatment embraced in place of standard medication.

Present interest in complimentary types of therapy has surpassed clinical research into their effectiveness, and at present there is just not enough high quality evidence to justify deserting established and successful medicine treatments in favour of unproven and possibly inefficient treatments.
Nevertheless, as a help to standard medicine, the potential of natural, non-invasive, complementary therapies to boost a sensation of wellness and enhance quality of life among individuals coping with dementia is now being  recognized.

Potential advantagesSenior woman having a massage

The purposes for complementary treatments can be broad ranging.
Some are tailored towards stimulation with such aims as:

  •  Encouraging social communication.
  •  Boosting cognitive function.
  •  Stimulating memory.
  •  Encouraging exercise.

Others have leisure/relaxation as their major function, with such potential advantages as:

  • Reducing disturbed and flustered behaviours.
  •  Promoting sleep.
  •  Easing physical pain.

All therapies aim to increase mood and instill a sensation of wellbeing. The power of this should not be under-estimated. As one man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s commented, “I do not remember what people told me but I do remember how they made me feel”. Herein lies an important point. Dementia frequently leaves people feeling isolated, withdrawn and dispirited so group treatments that allow people to get together to promote socialisation or trigger reminiscences are commonly a great means of raising somebody’s spirits and inspiring engagement.

What form can complementary therapy take?

Complementary treatments are many and wide ranging in nature. It might be helpful to divide them into the following categories:

  • Art, Music and Dance

Art and Music both provide beneficial tools in dementia care by stimulating meaningful responses and removing language barriers if the person is beginning to find communication frustrating. Both supply enjoyable activities that have the capability to increase state of mind, increase attention span, broaden social interaction and reduction sensations of stress, anxiety and depression.

  •  Botanicals, Herbal supplements and Extracts

The most widely used of these is Aromatherapy using important oils extracted from plants and natural herbs which are either put on the skin with massage, or breathed in by steam inhalation to promote the limbic system in the brain. Each vital oil has distinct effects (anti-bacterial, diuretic, tranquilising …) and the effect can be hugely relaxing, helping sleep, soothing disturbed behaviours and so on.

  • Elderly woman in a wheelchair with a rabbit Exercise
    Even gentle exercise such as stretches can raise mood and help alleviate boredom, and simple aches and pains.
  •  Pets and Dolls
    Pets can often bring enjoyment and help promote relaxation. Some residential care homes now offer Pet therapy as a means of encouraging socialisation and stimulation.
  • Therapeutic Multi-sensory experiences

These include therapies as large ranging as group treatments such as Reminiscence and Validation treatments to enhance 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 majority of medics, care home staff and dementia charities, now commonly support the use of complementary therapies when utilized along with traditional medicine. There is  a lot of anecdotal stories of individual successes, but scientific research has not managed to keep speed with the ever-growing public interest. High quality clinical study is much needed so, as yet, there is little solid proof  about the efficiency of any specific therapy.

Words of Caution

  •  Everyone experiences dementia differently so it is important to remember that what works for one person, may well not work for another. A therapy that promotes happiness and enhanced motivation in one person also has the capacity to puzzle and discourage another.

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

  •  Current regulation remains uneven for the various forms of complementary therapies, so be wary of possibly exaggerated benefits and successes.
  •  Just because a therapy is touted as “natural” does not always indicate it’s safe for everybody. Some vitamin supplements or essential oils used in aromatherapy and massage can react significantly– and often adversely– with medication.

Always talk to your Doctor prior to starting any form of therapy to check the suitability of a particular therapy for you personally.

Before starting any type of complimentary therapy … remember the following points:.
Talk initially to your doctor— he/she will be able to reassure you there are no safety concerns which any proposed therapy that could respond harmfully with other treatment already being undertaken or proposed. Many doctors are now advocates of complementary treatments, and may have the ability to provide advice about excellent specialists in the area or even refer you through the NHS.

Be prepared– prior to starting any therapy, discover exactly what the treatment will involve, how many appointments will be needed, what are the most likely outcomes you can expect, and, how much it will cost.

Be practical– therapy cannot magically remove all symptoms, but it may assist with a certain targeted problem or just help you unwind and improve your mood.
Give it a whirl and  keep an open mind!