4 ways to make your salon or spa dementia-friendly

With someone in the UK developing dementia every three minutes, according to research from the Alzheimer’s Society, knowing how to tailor your salon or spa’s experience for those living with the disease has never been more important. Across the country, high-street businesses are stepping up to the plate, finding out how the condition affects people and turning that understanding into thoughtful action.

Salons and spas in particular have been reaching out to organisations like the Alzheimer’s Society for training, with the charity noting an increase in requests from beauty businesses to become a “Dementia Friend” – a person or company who wants to make a positive difference to people living with the disease.

“It’s really heartening to see beauty businesses uniting with us in the fight against dementia,” says Emma Bould, programme partnerships project manager at the Alzheimer’s Society. “The service they provide is really important because it not only promotes health and relaxation, but helps people with their personal maintenance, making them feel good about themselves.”

Dementia is an emotionally charged issue and it’s normal to feel anxious about tailoring your service, especially if you’ve never had a client with the condition book in before. However, with some training and process tweaks, you can transform your business into a completely inclusive space that locals will be proud of. So, why not make the change?

1. Invest in the right training

The first step is to reach out to a trusted organisation for free training, such as the Alzheimer’s Society, which will provide either face-to-face or online education on the key messages about dementia, common misconceptions and steps you need to implement in your business.

“It’s a duty of care to have that awareness. We were one of the first spas in the country to become cancer and dementia aware and we’re very proud of this,” says Sue Davis, wellness director at Lifehouse Spa & Hotel in Essex. “Dementia is becoming quite an issue because people are living longer. You’re not going to have clients with advanced dementia come through your doors but you’re likely to encounter those in the early stages who are trying to function with the condition.”

However, Davis advises asking for volunteers to undergo the training rather than imposing it on staff because some of your team may have family members or friends who are living with the disease and could find the process too hard. For the same token, a therapist straight out of college may find this quite intimidating.

“Our advanced therapists perform these treatments because they’ve already undergone cancer therapy education and are naturally more experienced and empathetic,” explains Davis. “This is important because the client’s emotions can be heightened and any sudden move can make them disorientated, which could throw a more junior therapist.”

Although your client may not remember that they’ve visited the salon, the feeling of relaxation will remain. “You’ll be amazed at how much that emotion lingers,” says Kelly Anthony, specialist at Beautiful You UK, a company which provides dementia-friendly beauty therapies to people in care homes.   

“The client might feel good for a couple of days after but won’t remember why, which is sadly part of the disease. Even though their memories are falling away quickly the emotions last longer and you’re helping to anchor that feeling.”

Aromatherapy back massage

2. Opt for rhythmic treatments

When it comes to choosing a treatment, anything rhythmic is ideal as the repetitive movements will be calming for your client, and all the experts recommend steering clear of deep-tissue massage or machine-based face and body treatments. Apart from that, it’s very much about offering the individual what they like.

“What we’ve learned is that you need to treat the person rather than the disease because they want to feel normal. You don’t want to single them out and make them feel different,” explains Davis. It’s worth talking to the client’s family or carer to find out their preferences (one of these people will accompany the customer to the salon on the day) and be prepared to switch up the ritual if need be.

“You have to gauge how they are around you and remember no day is the same. The next time you see the client they may be having a particularly challenging day,” adds Anthony. “If the client isn’t in a good state for their facial appointment, you could offer a hand and arm massage instead.”

Whatever treatment you perform, try to incorporate some form of aromatherapy. “There’s research in the Journal of Clinical Nursing that says aromatherapy can help people with dementia to manage some of their symptoms, and certain oils may have the potential to improve memory and thinking skills in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Bould. “Lemon balm specifically has been shown to help with mood swings and lavender oil with aggressive behaviour.”

Lifehouse even offers mindfulness sessions to dementia clients. People living with the condition can experience anxiety and breathing exercises have been shown to help reduce the symptoms. “We provide a calm experience where the therapist talks through the exercises slowly while relaxing music fills the air,” says Davis.

Spa consultation

3. Master the art of communication

Dementia affects everyone differently so you’ll need to expect the unexpected – some clients may forget what’s going on or have difficulty understanding what you’re saying. It’s important to stay calm, tell them what you’re doing at every stage of the treatment and speak to the client at their level – never over the shoulder because they may get confused as to where you are.

“Eye contact is so important for someone with dementia as the disease can be quite insular, and they may not be used to someone coming into their personal space,” says Anthony. “Engage them in conversation but be generic in terms of what you say. You don’t want to remind them that you’ve seen them before because this could trigger a situation, especially in the more challenging stage of the disease.”

Phrases such as “remember we did this” or “last time you had X treatment which you really enjoyed” are big non-nos. Anthony advises being less specific, saying things like, “it’s nice to see you” or “I’m going to do a nice relaxing facial for you today”. She also suggests not asking too many questions because your client may not have the answer, which can frustrate and disorientate them. 

If your customer has difficulty speaking, Bould advises engaging them through their other senses to discover what they would like. “Spas are a really sensual experience, so you can interact with your client via sight, smell and touch. For example, you could use visual aids of herbs and flowers, or let them smell the essential oils, asking them to point to the one they want.”

Contactless card payment

4. Invest in signage and easier payment methods

Loss of memory is not the only side effect of dementia, with many struggling in other areas of life such as finding their way around a shop or navigating an exit. “Many people with dementia fear they may not get the right support while out and about. People with the condition can end up spending days on end at home, giving up the hobbies and activities they enjoy,” explains Bould.

Noisy environments can be quite disruptive, so if your client comes in and your reception area is busy, take them to a quiet room. “We tell the client’s family when we’re busy so they book them in for an appointment on a quieter day, where it will be less disorientating,” explains Davis. Lifehouse also turns their phones down to a quieter volume and makes sure there’s clear signage, creating easy to follow paths to key facilities such as the exit, toilets and treatment room.

“Dementia affects your visual perception, so as you get older your eyes find it harder to distinguish against colours and contrast. For example, tiles on the floor can look like steps and a dark mat can look like a change in the depth of the floor or even a hole,” says Bould.

Invest in disability signage because it uses the most visual colours – red and yellow are the last colours on the spectrum you see before you lose your sight. Plus, they contrast the most against different coloured backgrounds. You can download these signs for free.

Some dementia suffers also have difficulty understanding the value of money, unable to recognise coins and notes. The Alzheimer’s Society recommends helping the client count their change instead of correcting them and installing a contactless card machine so that they don’t have to handle money or a chip and pin.

“It’s even worth talking to one of the client’s family members or their carer about setting up an account which can be paid off every two to three months,” adds Bould. “It’s often the simplest things that can help best.”

We also have lots of information about how to make your salon trans-friendly too