When you have a sore throat, you may take a spoonful of honey or a lozenge. If you are anemic, you may add an iron tablet to your routine, after you speak to your doctor. However, what can you do when your spirit needs healing?

There are many complementary therapies that have been nurturing people's souls for thousands of years all over the world. The successes of these therapies cannot always be measured in numbers or visible outcomes but in the feelings that patients experience after sharing in them.

It's not an "either-or" situation between conventional medicine and complementary healing. Your elderly loved one may be using medicine to control blood pressure or to keep diabetes in check. However, if yours opens his or her mind to different therapies, they may add to an overall sense of well-being.

What is Reiki?

One such complementary therapy is Reiki. This technique uses the energy in a person's own body to regain a spiritual balance. The word Reiki is a combination of two Japanese words. The word, "Rei" means "higher power," and the word "Ki" refers to "life force energy." Doctor Mikao Usui, a Japanese Buddhist, began this form of channeling energy as a way to heal the body and mind in the 1800s.

"I trained for several years before I became a Reiki Master in 2000," says Nance Boozer, who practices privately and at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. "Since I've been sharing Reiki, I have observed, and my clients have told me that it helps them in ways they did not expect. Examples include feelings of amazing relaxation and peace. This type of stress reduction can then make it possible for physical symptoms to lessen. I have had people tell me that their headaches have disappeared and that their chronic pain is not as bad as it once was."

A session of Reiki usually lasts anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes, but each person is different, so a session can be longer or shorter. Most Reiki treatments are done in a room with a soothing atmosphere. Dimmed lights or candles and quiet music are often the norm.

"At Levindale, I have each resident or patient lie comfortably in bed. However in my private practice, people will lie down on a table. I usually start my sessions by clearing the room of negative energy with a quick meditation," says Boozer. "Then I explain what I am doing throughout the treatment. I place my hands on the chakras of the body, one at a time. Each person has seven major chakras and many minor ones. Chakras are invisible energy vortexes. When raised, a chakra accepts new, healing energy." By the way, these are the same points on the body that are used in yoga.

Depending on the Reiki practitioner, sometimes the hands rest gently on the chakras. Sometimes they are just above them. However, there is never any massaging or manipulation during a session. There is also no touching of private areas.

In Boozer's case, she feels the healing energy as it's transferred to each person. Sometimes she says that her hands throb or feel a kind of prickly heat. Her residents often tell her that they also feel a comforting heat.

The Effects of Reiki

Some people say they feel the effects immediately. Some say they feel them several days later. Still other people are not convinced that they get any benefits. However, Boozer tells everyone that Reiki can only help, not hurt.

Staff members at Levindale have told her that they also notice changes in the people who she has worked with. Nursing assistants say that residents are calmer after Boozer leaves and are less irritable and aggressive for a time.

One family member, of a resident who is not able to verbally communicate, told Boozer that she noticed a softening in her mother's face.

Another example was a Levindale resident who was often agitated. She would call out and cry out, and there was no apparent physical reason for her outbursts. Within 10 minutes of her first session, the woman was sleeping peacefully.

Another gentleman was diagnosed with cancer. Boozer went to him and asked if he wanted to try Reiki. He was less than enthusiastic but told her to go ahead. She started with his head chakra and worked down. By the time she got to his heart Chara, he was also asleep. When she returned the following week, he told her that he wasn't sure if it had "done anything" but that he must have felt pretty good if he went to sleep. He asked her to do another session.

Family members and staff members are often the ones who recommend patients and residents for Reiki treatments. Some of the people she helps are receiving palliative care or on hospice.

To become a Reiki practitioner and then a Reiki master, a person must take specific courses. Reiki is not a religion. It is "one with nature," which can be a companion to different religions or can stand by itself.

Helene King is a communications coordinator at LifeBridge Health, one of the largest and most comprehensive providers of health services in the northwest Baltimore region. A former television producer, she has overseen the completion of "The Who, What and Where of Elder Care" guide book and the Project LIGHT comprehensive tool kit, which is designed for primary care physicians helping their patients fight depression.