Just as music can bring forth memories of past experiences and bring a smile to our faces, so can the smell of a familiar meal cooking from the kitchen.
The aromas of particular foods wafting through the house can make our seniors sentimental for people and events from their past.
Our sense of smell is thought to have the most profound link when it comes to unlocking our memories.
Some aromas have the ability to pull our seniors as far back as their childhood according to researchers.
Familiar Smells Connect in the Brain
What happens when we smell something familiar?
Does the brain react when a pungent smell hits the olfactory system as we breathe?
According to researchers, there are two structures in the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus, that help to store our memories and are connected to the olfactory nerve, which senses smells.
When we smell a particular scent, chemicals are released, actually affecting the functioning of the brain.
What Smells Trigger a Response?
Every person is different, with a unique past and a variety of memories.
When the brain catches a whiff of a particular scent, memories are accessed more easily.
We know that certain smells actually bring us back to particular memories, usually happy one. Here are a few examples of aromas and possible related memories.
- Cookies baking – we remember our childhood, coming home from school to our mothers baking our favorite cookies. Maybe our grandmother made a particular cookie, like molasses, and when you smell that type, you think of her kitchen and the table you sat down at when you were there visiting. We can even remember conversations we had when eating these particular familiar cookies. We will even feel the way we did at the time – joy, sadness, excitement!
- Cabbage or turnips or rutabagas boiling – these particular vegetables cooking give off a specific aroma that permeates the entire house. Perhaps we remember playing outside and could smell dinner cooking in our house that was different from the rest of the homes on the block. These vegetables could also tell the story of a culture or a holiday when these foods were a staple of our meals. We remember the extended family who sat at the dinner table and the stories they would tell.
- Cinnamon at the holidays – rolls, baked goods, apple pie and hot beverages that use cinnamon as a main ingredient during the holidays bring back not just the familiar food seniors shared but the feeling of the family being together and the traditions that were followed so closely.
- Popcorn – smelling popping popcorn makes us all giddy with excitement. Is it time for a movie? Who didn’t grow up watching movies in the theater or the drive-in with a bowl of popcorn shared with siblings? Who would get to hold the bowl? The flavor of the butter and salt that you could lick off your fingers before the movie ended-yum! The smell of popcorn will surely bring back pleasant times and happy kids.
- Sage in the turkey dressing – the smell of the traditional turkey dressing cooking in the bird during the holidays will transport our seniors back to a time when all the adults would be hanging out in the kitchen getting the big meal ready. It didn’t matter that we had to sit at a table separate from the adults as long as the stuffing came our way. It was something we didn’t get often, maybe only once or twice a year, so it was savored when it was served.
- Garlic bread – another one of those smells we could smell down the block when mom was cooking dinner and we were out playing in the streets. Garlic, whether in the meal or on the bread, we knew we wouldn’t leave the table hungry. Seniors can remember fighting over the last piece or listening to dad talk about his day at the office.
- Freshly mowed grass – maybe your senior was the one doing the grass cutting in the heat of the summer or maybe she was the lucky one who got to sit on the curb watching others cut the grass. The smell of fresh cut grass brings us all back to the summer when the day spread out long and wide and the adventures were endless.
- Pine during the holidays – the smell of a fresh Christmas tree or wreath coming into the house floods our seniors with thoughts of getting that special present or seeing grandma or grandpa who only visited once a year when the whole family got together. Seniors remember all the ornaments they made by hand or the special angel that sits atop the tree. There are special memories of the family that come unbidden at the smell of pine.
- Someone’s perfume or cologne – depending on the person they remember, seniors can smell a particular cologne or perfume that mother used to wear or grandmother, maybe a favorite teacher or a secret love that used to use and remember their face and gestures clearly. How they talked, held their head or moved their hands when they talked is easy to remember with one whiff.
- Laundry on the line – back in the day, laundry on the clothesline, especially the sheets and towels held the smell of sunshine. Seniors remember sleeping on freshly cleaned sheets, taking the wash off the line and bringing it in to be folded and the fresh scent of the soap their mother used to clean the clothes. The people and the events of everyday family life can make seniors feel calm and happy, maybe they can even feel the warmth of the sunshine on their face.
- A baby’s powder, lotion or shampoo – remembering their own children or grandchildren and that certain smell that babies have can bring joy to seniors. Their shampoo and powder evokes a time when caring for the new baby meant everything!
Aromatherapy and Cognitive Function
Using aromatherapy can stimulate specific emotions and improve mental function.
It is used to reduce anxiety, tension, depression, insomnia and aid relaxation. Aromatherapy is not a new idea but has actually been practiced in many cultures for centuries.
Aromatherapy can be imparted using candles, diffusers, warmers, applied topically and some even consume various products (although this is not generally recommended in the US due to harm and potential medication interactions).
Many use lavender pillows or sachets to help improve sleep or lavender in the bath water to help relax. Peppermint oil has been used for calming by placing oils in warm water on the washcloth used to wash hands and face in the morning. Lemon balm and ginger have also been used to help stress, sleep and emotions.
Rosemary has been used recently to test people with memory deficits and found the use of rosemary diffusers appeared to improve their memory functioning when tested. It seems to boost chemicals in the brain that aid in memories.
Using aromatherapy to help with the symptoms often associated with dementia could be helpful for family caregivers looking for solutions. Using essential oil therapy to help with sleep disturbances and reduce anxiety which could improve overall quality of life for seniors and their caregivers.
We have seen for ourselves the effects of aroma on our appetite and intake. Serving foods with strong odors can also turn seniors off and cause them to refuse a meal.
The smell must be welcoming and comforting to produce a positive response for our seniors.
Aromas, familiar scents and the smell of familiar food cooking can bring back memories, both good and bad, for our senior loved ones. Being able to capitalize on these familiar aromas may be able to help family caregivers keep the mood upbeat and the day calm.
Try a few new scents and see what could happen for your senior and caregiving experience!