The Dandelion centre is known for its beautiful garden, which its residents, all suffering from dementia, can recharge their batteries. “When I came here a year ago, there weren’t enough plants inside for my liking, so that’s something we started to change,” says Henri Gassler, “Plants are living things and they just create a good atmosphere.”
This got Dandelion thinking: how could the garden be brought even closer to the centre’s residents, extending it from outdoors to indoors, so that they could not only look at it, but truly experience it with all of their senses?
Aromatherapy has already been used as a complementary form of treatment in the Dandelion centre for some time now. “This form of treatment from the field of phytotherapy, which uses real essential oils, can have a very positive impact on the individual being treated, for example by reducing the need for sedatives and pain medication. These types of treatment are particularly well suited to dementia sufferers, who can find it difficult to express their symptoms.” So Henri Gassler is very proud of the fact that all of the nursing staff have been trained in aromatherapy: “When people are suffering from dementia, it’s not that their senses stop working. It’s just a question of what their brain does with the information.”
Our olfactory cells check the air we breathe in for “fragrance messages”. Our sensory cells register the olfactory stimulus and transmit them to our olfactory bulb via nerve fibres. The impulses arrive directly in our limbic system, the emotional part of the brain that is responsible for creating and processing emotions and memories, and for how we perceive pain. The essential oils enter our bloodstream through our skin or by inhalation and spend some time circulating in the body. They are eliminated by our excretory organs. The nursing staff use aromatherapy in room fragrance, rubs, inhalation treatment, washing/bathing and warm compresses.
(From the Dandelion aromatherapy concept)
After witnessing the promising use of aromatherapy, Henri Gassler asked himself: “How can we make greater use of plants in general?” He found a study conducted by Zurich University of Applied Sciences showing that plants could be used effectively in nursing homes because they appeal to all of the senses. “That confirmed what I was already convinced of and I met our aromatherapist right away to discuss how we could combine the concept with our existing alternative treatments. It’s all about wanting to appeal to all of our senses: touch, feel, taste and smell.”
Dandelion plans to create a whole wall full of plants within the centre: “Using plants and herbs that we also use in our aromatherapy treatments. The nice thing about it is that we can then use the plants for other purposes; cooking, making fragrant sachets, tea, bath salts, ointments. We can bring the plants into the centre and allow our residents to experience them in a truly fantastic way. You always have to be a bit careful with dementia sufferers and plants: when we handed out roses during the lockdown period, someone bit into the actual flower. It might have been funny in the case of the rose, but it could have dangerous implications if the plant were poisonous.”
«After all, who decides to visit a dementia centre to find out what they actually do there? That’s why I want to open the centre up and allow people to see things from a different perspective. Programmes like these used to be popular for employees working in the corporate sector. So if anyone from Baloise is interested, our doors are open.»
When the lockdown was imposed in March and the home closed its doors to visitors, it was the start of a tough time for Dandelion. Striking the right balance between protection and freedom for the residents involves walking a fine line. Henri Gassler knows only too well that focusing on one of the aspects comes at the expense of the other. Milieu therapy, a treatment approach in which the residents are cared for in groups of around eight people, allowed Dandelion to retain a structure similar to a family unit. This really helped when visitors were unable to stop by. “Obviously we can’t replace the residents’ relatives completely. But we can help by being attentive and committed. Our nursing staff do this day in, day out with the patience of saints. Dementia sufferers can be very difficult to deal with and the people working here are doing the job because it’s their vocation.”
Dandelion is now starting to open up, making the centre as safe as it has to be and as open as possible, in particular so that residents’ families can also be more closely involved. “We want to set, and be considered, a good example. We might offer information events on aromatherapy at some point – let’s see. But I would really love to be able to communicate our philosophy to the outside world.”
Henri Gassler, who spent many years as an HR manager at a major Swiss company, knows that “a sound corporate and conflict culture is crucial. This applies at Dandelion just as it does at Baloise. A company’s survival rests on its employees being satisfied.” A sound corporate culture also involves showing employees how much they are appreciated. It’s a process of give and take – employees create value for the company and the company creates value for the employees. “We took a look at our salary system last year. And we can say that we pay fair wages.” But Henri Gassler is convinced that appreciation is not just about salary, but also about the value that society attaches to a job.
«"We can only ensure quality of life for our residents if our employees are happy. So quality of life can only be ensured as a joint effort made by each and every one of us. As a result, we take our employees’ concerns seriously.” »
Henri Gassler is also supporting the push for the establishment of a hospice and palliative care centre for children and young people. “We don’t have centres like this in Switzerland at the moment. You have to go to Germany.” When Henri Gassler is asked where his commitment to this cause comes from, he replies: “I want people to live independently and retain their dignity in the last stage of their life, too. And I wonder why we find this concept so difficult to deal with, especially in a country like Switzerland. I think that we need to talk about death. It will never be an easy topic to broach, but it’s part of life. People preparing for childbirth consider every single aspect: the birthing room, the midwife, etc. – they prepare for everything. You only realise that these preparations are just as important in the last stage of life when it’s your turn to deal with it.”