Scent expert and Unforgettable panel member Linda Harman explains how certain scents can trigger memories for those with dementia

Returning home, the smell of furniture polish brings a smile to my face – the satisfaction of previous labours fills the air with the scent of cleanliness.

We all interpret the world through our senses and are influenced by thousands of signals from around us; colour, shape, feel, sound, taste and smell reassure, intrigue, repel or attract us every minute of our lives.

The sense of smell is the most immediate and emotional of the senses; rooted in the parts of the brain responsible for memory and emotion. Scent recognition is locked together with memories of people, places, life events and feelings.

How does scent connect us?

It works in two distinct phases – the first is instinctively connected to our feelings about the smell (do we like it or not, what does it remind us of?) and the second is a more analytical process that leads us to try to identify what the smell is.

This two-stage process makes this sense effective in helping to connect with people at all dementia stages; for some, smelling will lead to detailed conversations, for others, a scent will bring a moment of pleasure through the sensation and engagement with the demonstrator.

As a scent enthusiast, I am personally very smell-aware. Many people do not think that they are, but give them the smell of a childhood sweet and you will provoke a flood of happy memories of pocket-money pennies and corner shops from times gone by.

Using scent in dementia care

Relationship centred care (sometimes known as person-centred care) is now widely accepted as the best approach to caring for older people and those with dementia. The relevance of sensory therapy, and particularly the use of the sense of smell, to relationship centred care is that the act of sharing a scent experience automatically engages people in a joint activity. This, in itself, helps people to stay engaged with family members and carers, and thus feel happier.

My mother is in the late stages of dementia. Her speech and cognition are badly affected. She was previously a keen gardener, walker, home-maker and loved any new skin care product or perfume that came her way.

Scent and touch therapy add to her quality of life; lavender gently scents her room to reduce anxiety and promote sleep and relaxation. It also helps to create a personal space in the care home where she now lives. The care staff love her fragrant room, too – it makes it a pleasant place to work.

I massage my mother’s hands with beautifully fragrant moisturiser after a manicure; it makes her feel pampered and cared for which always makes her smile. Sometimes the other ladies in the home often look on jealously – prompting me to guiltily extend my activity to them too!

The smell of all sorts of different things bring her moments of pleasure both through the smell itself and the shared activity – especially if it is one of her grandchildren who is taking time to talk to her about it.

Fragrant memories have a huge contribution to make to our well-being. What is your favourite smell? Share them in the comments box below.

To find out more about Linda Harman, click here.