Objectives: Two controlled trials of aromatherapy to decrease agitation in persons with dementia have recently produced promising results. However, both studies combined the use of essential oils with massage. Thus, it is unclear if the effect of the aromatherapy intervention was the result of smelling or the cutaneous absorption of the oils. The purpose of this study was to determine whether smelling lavender oil decreases the frequency of agitated behaviors in patients with dementia. Design: The study design was within-subjects ABCBA (A = lavender oil, B = thyme oil, C = unscented grapeseed oil): 4 weeks of baseline measurement, 2 weeks for each of the five treatment conditions (10-week total intervention time), and 2 weeks of postintervention measurement. Oil was placed every 3 hours on an absorbent fabric sachet pinned near the collarbone of each participant's shirt. Setting: A long-term care facility specifically for persons with dementia. Participants: Seven agitated nursing home residents with advanced dementia. Measurements: Agitation was assessed every 2 days using a modified Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory. Olfactory functioning was assessed with structured olfactory identification and discrimination tasks, and with qualitative behavioral observation during those tasks. Results: Split-middle analyses conducted separately for each patient revealed no treatment effects specific to lavender, no treatment effects nonspecific to pleasant smelling substances, and no treatment effects dependent on order of treatment administration. There were no differences between participants with more and less intact olfactory abilities. Conclusion: There is significant evidence in the neurologic and neuropsychologic literature that persons with dementia have impaired olfactory abilities. Concordant with this literature, this study found no support for the use of a purely olfactory form of aromatherapy to decrease agitation in severely demented patients. Cutaneous application of the essential oil may be necessary to achieve the effects reported in previous controlled studies.
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