Have you ever walked into a room and smelled something that immediately transported you to a specific time or place in your memory? A certain perfume may fold you into a hug from a loved one, or wood smoke could recall crackling bonfires on warm summer nights.
This inextricable link between scent and memory — called the “Proust Phenomenon” after the French author Marcel Proust, who describes in his novel Remembrance of Things Past the uncanny shock of memory that occurs each time he samples a madeleine cookie soaked in tea — can be used as a type of sensory therapy to inspire recollection in seniors with dementia.
Aromatherapy for dementia can unlock sense memories that older adults experiencing cognitive decline may not be able to otherwise recall or verbalize. That’s because olfactory memory triggers are more evocative than visual or auditory stimulation, resulting in more emotional and detailed memories, according to a study published in the Journal of Cognition and Emotion.
Learn how memory care communities use scent therapy to minimize agitation and awaken memories, and how you can inspire recollection at home with essential oils and common household fragrances.
Memory care communities may use aromatherapy — along with other dementia therapies and activities — to counter common dementia behaviors like agitation, aggression, and apathy.
“Different scents cause different responses in memory care communities,” says Raina Akers, account executive at ScentAir, a scent marketing company that works with senior living providers across the country. “The right scent can create a welcoming, calming environment for residents, staff, and family visitors.”
A community may choose to scent an entire space, use aromatherapy to treat dementia behaviors on a 1-on-1 basis, or incorporate fragrance into massages or memory activities. For example, a dining room may use a sweet scent like hot apple pie or sugar cookie near the entryway to stimulate residents’ appetites. Or, the scent of fresh-brewed coffee in corridors could be used to gently signal residents that it’s time to wake up. Alternatively, relaxing fragrances can be used in hallways in the evenings to encourage a consistent bedtime routine.
Many people who have dementia exhibit common behavioral and psychological symptoms, like confusion and trouble sleeping. These symptoms are often treated with a combination of prescription drugs and supportive therapies. According to Johns Hopkins, aromatherapy can positively affect well-being and health when scents are used in a safe way. Aromatherapy has been proven to reduce agitation, improve sleep, boost mood, and even increase appetite, according to an analysis of 11 studies published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
Caregivers in memory care communities often use fragrance to treat the following dementia behaviors — and you can do the same at home.
Herbal scents for stress. Anxiety can lead to agitation, aggression, and confusion in older adults with dementia. Lavender, cedarwood, and other herbal scents like marjoram and rosemary may have a calming effect on loved ones experiencing these symptoms. “Calming scents often include essential oil notes — lavender vanilla and other fragrances in that family are often chosen,” says Akers.
Gourmand fragrances for loss of appetite. As they age, seniors with dementia often experience loss of appetite due to decreased physical activity, altered sense of taste, and confusion around meal times. You can help stimulate your loved one’s appetite with “gourmand” scents like grapefruit, cloves, and blends like hot apple pie or sugar cookie. “Gourmand scents are good for inspiring family memories and are also generally relaxing,” says Akers.
Lavender or chamomile for trouble sleeping. Many seniors who have dementia experience difficulty sleeping, as well as sundown syndrome, a period of agitation that often occurs in the evenings. Bergamot, lavender, and chamomile may help if your loved one can’t get a good night’s rest.
Citrus for lack of focus or motivation. It’s important for seniors with dementia to remain engaged and motivated. Regular involvement in activities helps reduce isolation, and motivation to complete tasks leads to a feeling of accomplishment. “Scents with citrus or bright notes like ocean breeze can help energize residents,” says Akers.
Consider your loved one’s personal history as you select scents to explore as these will be most likely to inspire recollections of times past. For example, if your mother was a gardener, consider the smell of freshly turned earth or tomato leaves as aromatherapy for memory. If your father was a chef, the scent of roasting meat could recall days spent creating in the kitchen.
Here are some familiar, comforting scents and the memories they might inspire.
Freshly cut grass
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Once you’ve chosen fragrances to explore, you can try these readily available aromatherapy items for elderly loved ones at home:
While properly administered aromatherapy doesn’t appear to have any significant adverse effects, it’s important to note that scents and essential oils aren’t FDA approved. Just because a fragrance is naturally derived doesn’t mean it’s safe. Some natural products can be respiratory allergens, like oils derived from cinnamon and cumin. Others may cause skin irritation if used topically, and the majority can be toxic if ingested by people or pets. Make sure your loved one doesn’t react negatively to a scent or an oil, and stop use if they do.
Aromatherapy for elderly adults with advanced dementia should always be supervised: Candles and incense are fire hazards, while wax melts or essential oils may seem edible.
Many types of sensory therapy are used to calm dementia symptoms and encourage recollection. For example, popular music from a senior’s childhood could inspire memories of a school dance, or the texture of fur could mimic that of a beloved pet. Scent therapy can be combined with other sensory therapies, like the ones listed above, for a more fully evocative experience. Try using props, real scent sources, and additional sensory cues.
Alzheimer’s Association.“Benefits of Using Aromatherapy.”
Best Alzheimer’s Products.“Olfactory Stimulation for Alzheimer’s and Dementia.”
johnshopkinsmedicine.org. “Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?”
Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.“Aromatherapy for the Treatment of Patients with Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia: A Descriptive Analysis of RCTs.”
Legacy Senior Living.“Using Scent to Manage Mood Changes in a Senior With Alzheimer’s.”
Cognition and Emotion.“Proust revisited: Odours as triggers of aversive memories.”