Baking, gardening, a soak in the bath….scent is as much part of these experiences as the end result of the task or the sumptuous feeling of the treat. Recently, a sulphurous waft from a struck match instantly transported me back to childhood with memories of my father’s, now socially unacceptable, smoking habit. And then there are all the iconic products whose scents bring back so many memories; Vosene with which mother scrubbed our hair weekly, Nivea for when skin need some loving care, Germoline for the many cuts and grazes…I expect you can recall the scents even as you read their names!
Smells are a powerful connector to the past because of the way the sense connects with the brain.
Like taste, smell is a chemical sense. Scents are detected by sensory cells at the top of your nose called chemoreceptors. These are stimulated by airborne molecules and send electrical impulses to the brain which are interpreted as specific odours – turning a sensation into perception. The response is so fast that there are two distinct stages;
The first is an immediate awareness of the odour and whether it is pleasant or not, or if it represents danger ( such as the smell of burning toast or of something putrid, for example.) This is intuitive – you will have no awareness of thinking about it.
The second response stage is more considered: we analyse what we smell and try to identify it. This is a very individual process. Smell, more than any other sense, is linked to the parts of the brain used for emotion and memory. So one person’s favourite smell is to be avoided by another, depending on the associations we each make with that particular smell. For example, the smell of cut grass is a perennial indicator of happy summer days, unless you suffer from hay fever…
Tuning into the senses can help well being for us all. There is increasing awareness of the benefits of sensory stimulation. This therapeutic approach uses everyday objects to arouse one or more of the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch) with the goal of evoking positive feelings. It can be very beneficial to people with mental health issues. Developed in the 1960’s, the therapy was originally was designed to help children with learning disabilities. It was a way to explore and learn in a stimulating and safe environment that provided enjoyable, age-appropriate activities. Since then, the therapy has become widely used to treat other conditions, including autism; chronic pain; brain injuries; Alzheimer’s; and other forms of dementia.
Ultimately we use all five senses to interpret the world around us. Consciously tuning into them contributes to a thoughtful approach to life and tuning into the scents that surround us every day brings another dimension to life. For people with dementia using all the senses increases the probability of comprehension. The link between the sense of smell and memory and feelings directly relates to the same parts of the brain that are most often affected by the disease.
Smells remind us of people, places and things like no other sense. They are a novel way to trigger a conversation, verbal or not, depending on a person’s capabilities. A recent study found that just 10 minutes a day of meaningful engagement improves emotional well being in the elderly…how simple should it be for families and carers to provide that? And yet, many elderly people ( with or without dementia) find themselves under employed and under stimulated when living in residential care. Conversation cards and sensory installations can help people engage with each other, create soothing areas of calm or just gently coax stories out of new residents.
Smell is an emotional sense which means that, even if a person can not relate the facts of an occasion, if they recall how that thing or place made them feel – then the smell of something they used to love may well bring a moment of happiness.
And if I can achieve that for a people living with dementia – it makes my day!