Healthy alternatives

A pilot scheme testing a range of complementary therapies for
elderly people has been a great success. Joy Francis explains

In a small, cosy living room in Ealing, west London, the mood is
one of complete relaxation. The dulcet tones of the Bee Gees can be
heard faintly in the background, but it is the exotic smell which
really grabs the attention. On a table, cushioned by lily-white
towels, is a wooden box crammed with essential oils.

The room with the unusual contents belongs to 69-year-old Eileen
Edwards who is preparing to have her feet massaged using the
relaxation technique, reflexology. A resident of Chesterton Court,
which houses 28 sheltered units run by Central & Cecil Housing
Trust, she is one of 50 clients who took part in a six-month pilot
project on complementary therapies.

Launched in October last year, the Health Alternatives Pilot
Project For Older People offered residents in five homes run by the
trust the chance to experience aromatherapy, reflexology, and the
Japanese healing technique Reiki. A special programme for each
individual was devised by Maria Harvey, a qualified complementary
therapies practitioner. On average, everyone received five
intensive half-hour sessions.

The recently published results are impressive.¬ All those
experiencing pain from arthritis gained some pain relief leading in
turn to increased mobility and self-confidence. For some, tension
and depression were alleviated, insomniacs were able to sleep and
people with Alzheimer’s and dementia became more focused and less
dependent on their medication.

Edwards is one example. More or less confined to a wheelchair,
she has arthritis in her shoulder, spine, left knee and right hip.
Since the pilot she says the pain in her shoulder has virtually
disappeared and has been reduced elsewhere, although it is still
difficult for her to walk down a flight of stairs. She says she now
has more energy and finds it much easier to move around. Before the
scheme Harvey had no experience of working with elderly people, and
was slightly daunted at the thought of working with people with
dementia and Alzheimer’s disease within a residential setting. ‘I
wasn’t quite sure and I did wonder whether it would be of benefit,’
she says. Roz Goodliffe, the project manager, thought elderly
residents might resist the programme because of its association
with younger people ‘which was not the case at all’.

The idea was first brought to the trust’s attention two years
ago when a resident won an aromatherapy session in a competition.
This aroused a small degree of interest among the others and a few
one-off sessions were gradually introduced. ‘There was such a good
response and we could see the benefits, so we decided to apply for
funding for a pilot project,’ says Goodliffe.

At a cost of £6,000, provided mainly by Age Concern England
and the Kingston & Richmond Health of the Nation programme, the
Central & Cecil Housing Trust project was introduced. Those
based in sheltered accommodation were given the chance to volunteer
and care workers in residential homes were encouraged to recommend
less able clients who they believed would benefit.

Despite the programme’s success, complementary therapy still has
a mixed reputation among social services departments where elderly
people are concerned. As well as being dismissed as an avoidable
luxury, there is a general scepticism about its role alongside
traditional medicine.

Goodliffe disputes all this. In its defence she points to the
ageing population and community care’s ethos of creating
opportunities for people to be maintained in their own homes. ‘We
have demonstrated that it can work as an integral part of the
caring environment. It has clear benefits. It has a role in
augmenting traditional medicine and in preventive treatment.’

Reminiscence once attracted a similar response, yet it is
steadily gaining prominence under community care. Complementary
therapies also have a role to play here, as Harvey discovered when
applying the more passive technique of Reiki to a resident with
Alzheimer’s who had very little sense of smell. The application of
rose oil triggered a hidden memory.

Harvey explains: ‘One woman remembered her rose garden during a
session, which was really nice, especially as she doesn’t get out a
lot. It enabled me to bring this into our future sessions and
helped to create a special time for her.’

Staff are being brought in with the creation of a course called
Caring For The Carer. They will have a chance to develop
counselling and listening skills and some aromatherapy sessions
will be thrown in. It is felt that if the overall levels of stress
are reduced then there will be less absenteeism and less need to
recruit agency staff. But plans are under way to conduct a bigger,
more in-depth study, to look at the impact of complementary
therapies on people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, general pain
relief and cost effectiveness.

A lot of interest has already been generated and a mail-out to
various agencies and local authorities has begun. Central &
Cecil Housing Trust is keen for the project’s success to make an
impact nationally and is taking steps to liaise with the newly
formed parliamentary committee on complementary therapies.

There are clearly lessons for those in health and social
services to learn from the project’s findings. But with the
community care funding crisis prevalent in local authorities, the
forecast is cloudy. Goodliffe is undeterred. ‘If the older people
can embrace this kind of project, why can’t the rest of us?’ she

¬ Sidney Jones, Health Alternatives For Older People: A
Pilot Project, Central & Cecil Housing Trust, 1995

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