Natural therapies aren't just for the young and moneyed; they relieve the aches and pains of the elderly, too. Anna Moore reports
Seated in her tall armchair amid a muddle of old lace, crockery and fading photographs, Elsa Hall, 82, slowly rolls down her stockings. "Excuse my feet - they're not very pretty," she says shyly, before putting them at the mercy of Maria Harvey Lavin, a reflexologist and aromatherapist, who proceeds to work away all Elsa's arthritic pains and any worries that have built up since their last session - by massaging her feet with a few essential oils.

For Elsa, Maria's weekly visits have been a revelation. "I didn't know what any of these treatments were; I'd never heard of them," she says. "They've stopped my pains completely and taught me to relax. I'm leading a different life because of them."

Elsa is a resident of Colville Court, a sheltered accommodation in west London run by the Central and Cecil Housing Trust (CCHT), which last year piloted a six-month study into the use of complementary therapies on elderly people. With funding from Age Concern and the Kingston and Richmond Health Authority, residents of three CCHT schemes, two of which were care homes, were offered a wide range of weekly treatments. These varied from reflexology and aromatherapy to reiki, a Japanese technique involving the laying on of hands to transfer energy, and time line therapy, a psychological approach that combines meditation and counselling. The results have been so dramatic that CCHT has been inundated with information requests from about 700 care homes, and will report its findings to the Parliamentary Committee for Alternative and Complementary Medicine later this month.

The project, independently monitored by Dr Sidney Jones, a psychologist and lecturer in gerontology at Birkbeck College, University of London, found that complementary therapies could relieve many classic symptoms of conditions common among older people, including arthritis, ulcers, sleeplessness, depression and senile dementia. One resident achieved her first full night's sleep in four years with regular aromatherapy. Another, a man who initially described himself as a "septic sceptic", found such release from back pain and ulcers that he was able to venture out of the home alone for the first time since his arrival. Many residents reduced or stopped their intake of sedatives, steroids, painkillers and laxatives as a direct result. Joyce O'Rafferty, 70, is certainly a convert. "To be frank, I didn't expect much," she admits. "I thought that New Age stuff was a lot of hype - strictly for the young, pink tracksuit brigade with too much money and plenty of time." For 15 years, Joyce had been having twice-yearly steroid injections for arthritis in her knee, hip and shoulder bones. One year with Maria has now passed, during which Joyce has not needed further injections.

"Aromatherapy isn't a cure," says Joyce. "I've got slow deterioration of the bone - I suppose I'll have to go back to the doctors eventually - but it sure as hell alleviates the symptoms. It really has kept the pain at bay. I wouldn't have believed it myself."

According to Roz Goodliffe, CCHT arts and education officer, complementary health care is ideal for the residential home setting. "Many of the conditions here are associated with loss, loneliness and bereavement," she says. "Often, residents are grieving for loved ones, their homes and identities while trying to adjust to a new environment among strangers. Difficulties manifest themselves in aches and pains, agitation, depression and insomnia. At night, people lie awake chewing over things that might have been. These are very stressful places."

Since the scheme began, everyone at CCHT has noticed a new, calmer atmosphere. "The residents like the feeling that someone is coming in specially to hold them and touch and soothe," says Roz. "The staff deal with their needs - they bathe and dress them, maybe even feed them - but complementary therapy is often the residents only chance to have `time apart' to be touched in that gentle, non-invasive way."

The treatments have proved most effective in relieving symptoms of Alzheimer's disease such as wandering, pacing, insomnia and aggression. "We had one resident who had spent every afternoon for years chanting `Hail, Mary, Jesus and Joseph' very loudly, again and again. No matter how we tried, we couldn't stop her," says Roz. "But when Maria started massaging her hands and feet, she'd calm down almost immediately. Eventually, Maria could send her to sleep that way."

Sessions in meditation, counselling and relaxation, have helped bring on a new kind of peace. "We had one man in a wheelchair who, with the help of meditation, found himself in a place he used to go with his family 40 years ago, running through the grass with his daughter on his shoulders. He was aware of all the sensations - the sounds, touches and smells. Another lady found herself patting her dog that she hadn't seen for 20 years. It was important to know that even those residents who are physically unable to feel still have places inside that they can go to."

Although the pilot scheme has officially ended, CCHT has continued and extended the therapies, integrating them into the day-to-day running of the homes. Diffusers waft pleasant aromas of essential oils (carefully selected and blended by Maria as some oils are unsuitable for heart conditions) around communal areas. Staff are using lavender oils as night sedatives, dabbing some on pillows and adding drops to baths to induce sleep. Residents are also being taught how to perform reiki on one another.

The trust is applying for funding to introduce the treatments into all its other care homes, while its report for Parliament, Health Alternatives For Older People, calls for more detailed research into its potential savings to the NHS through reduction of doctors visits, medication, hospitalisation and staff absenteeism as a result of stress.

"It's been an excellent test case," confirms Dr Jones. "When I was asked to evaluate it, I was very sceptical, because it didn't seem to be based on science. But I saw so much improvement before my eyes that I think it should be offered in every home."

Age Concern is also encouraged by the results. "The choice of treatments available in residential care settings is far too restricted at the moment," a spokesman says. "This is the first time that anything much beyond massage, chiropody and basic aromatherapy has been offered on such an organised basis, and it seems to work very well. We'd like to see it developed and offered regularly alongside orthodox medicines, through training of medical staff and increased awareness of GPs."

Copies of `Health Alternatives For Older People' are available from CCHT/Arts and Education Department, 2 Priory Road, Kew, Surrey TW9 3DG.